The Shetland Prodigy

The Keepsake was a dimly lit pub on the banks of the Gulber Wick - a waterway that ran through the rugged Shetland Islands of Northern Scotland. A step through the narrow entryway felt like a journey back in time. Its 17th-century infrastructure had remained more or less intact but couldn’t accommodate the wiring for modern electricity. Instead, The Keepsake got by on lanterns and candles fixed upon counters, booths, and tables. It had no specialty cocktails, nor fancy craft brews - just a few kegs of beer and several bottles of Islay scotch from the neighboring distilleries. Yet no one traveled to this watering hole at the edge of the world for a drink –– they came for the music. They came for Alistair Sterling.  

Tucked away in the far back corner of The Keepsake sat a baby grand Steinway atop a tiny makeshift stage. Oddly enough, the piano had been purchased by the Royal Air Force during the war. The remote Shetland Islands were a popular staging area for flight operations and the regiments who called it home suffered some of the most devastating losses in the European campaign. As a way to combat dwindling morale, the RAF would enlist the services of establishments like The Keepsake to bring the spirits up of its men and offer a brief respite from the fatigue of battle through drink, song, and good times. 

There it still sits, covered in wax from dripping candelabras, a 20th-century instrument in a 17th-century pub, serving audiences far and wide. Every evening at 8pm, the workers from the nearby oil rigs would saunter in, covered in sweat, grease, and salty sea to find themselves awaiting the arrival of Alistair Sterling. A local legend, Alistair had been making his residency at The Keepsake for nearly two decades. He was a strange, eccentric man - short in stature yet always seen wearing a long wool peacoat that he claimed to have stolen from a Soviet officer.

His nightly arrival to The Keepsake was sporadic and random. Somedays he wouldn’t show up until well after midnight. However, once he arrived (often inebriated), a hush would fall over the crowd as they watched the strange short man stumble to the stage. He’d place two pints atop the piano and light a cigarette, smoking it to completion. With that, he’d close his eyes, reach out for the keys, and enter into a trance-like state that captivated the tiny room of hardened men. They watched silently as Alistair Sterling played classics with prodigy-like precision: Beethoven, Debussy, and Chopin were some of his favorites. Occasionally he’d drift into more modern interpretations from Gershwin or classic jazz from Duke Ellington or Thelonius Monk, never missing a note. 

Some days Alistair played for hours—others, only for minutes. There was of course, always the possibility of him not playing at all and just drunkenly passing out on top of the keys until the sun rose. The combination of his unpredictable nature along with the fact that the islands had notoriously poor cell and internet service meant that the legend of the Shetland Island’s prodigal son wasn’t something you could find footage of. If you heard tell of a musical genius in the far corners of the world, you just had to make the pilgrimage to see it for yourself. 

Amari Jefferson first heard the story of Alistair Sterling from one of her professors at Julliard. When the professor claimed that the greatest musician alive wasn’t Yo-Yo Ma or Wynton Marsalis or one of the other dozen legendary musicians to come through Julliard, but a strange drunk in a long wool coat that lived on a tiny chain of islands in the middle of nowhere, Amari became obsessed. Her talent required discipline at the highest level. It required 6 hours of practice a day from the time she was a child. It required overcoming every social and financial hurdle that one could imagine. It required all of her and she was happy to give it, as she believed this was the cost of greatness. So when presented with the tale of Alistair Sterling, It was only natural for her to be skeptical. 

That was how she found herself gripping the rails of a tiny tugboat as it was tossed around the rough seas of the Gulber Wick. The journey was far from pleasant –– two planes, three train rides, a series of small boats had finally brought her into the foggy harbor of the Shetland Islands. She gathered her things and asked the captain of the boat if he knew where to find The Keepsake.

“Aye,” he replied with a smile. “I take it ye lookin fer ol’ Alistair?” 

“Yes,” Amari nodded. “Is it true what they say about him?”

The captain shrugged. 

“I suppose that depends on who ya ask. Between you and me, the bawbag still owes me $20 quid from a bet.” 

It wasn’t hard to find the pub once ashore. The only sound on the sleepy island that could be heard other than the ebb and flow of waves crashing against the shore was the distant sound of music. Amari waded through a thicket of dense fog before arriving at an old wooden sign that read “The Keepsake - Est. 1684”. Through misty glass she could see the shadow of a figure hunched over the piano. 

She quietly slipped into the pub and stood near the entrance. Not 20 feet away sat the disheveled drunk that had been described to her as “the greatest musician in the world”. Alistair futzed around with random keys as he chugged one of the pint glasses that sat on top of the piano. 

Really? THIS is the greatest musician in the world? Amari thought. 

Alistair burped loudly before signaling for another pint. He then cleared his throat, closed his eyes, and began. Amari instantly knew the tune – Chopin’s Nocturn #9 in B-Flat. It was a beautiful and tragic song. Amari knew it all too well. She played it once as a child for her late grandmother who told her that it was the sound of “melancholy.” Alistair swayed, pouring his soul into the keys. Amari watched from afar her eyes welling up at the sight of his magnificence. That was until midway through the 3rd stanza when Alistair slammed his fist down on the keys out of frustration. 

“Ah bollocks!” he cried out. “Yer a goddamn fool ye are!” he yelled in a deep-Scotish accent, directing his anger towards a brick wall behind him. No one said a word. Then, with another burp, Alistair jumped into fervorous playing, hitting note after note in perfect harmony. It was Chopin – Étude Op. 10 No. 4 – one the hardest pieces of music ever composed. Some even said that Chopin himself struggled to play it. Amari walked forward with wide eyes and a dropped jaw. The flurry of sounds and notes covered her in a swarm as if she could feel the energy emanating from the stage.

When he finished, the small crowd erupted in as much applause as they could muster, but Amari felt it was still lacking for what they just witnessed. The crowd of locals dispersed as Alistair stumbled through a back door. Amari followed, desperate to speak with the man who successfully reduced her 25 years of musical knowledge to nothing in a matter of minutes. 

He sat on a wooden stump and smoked a cigarette as he gazed out onto the black waters ahead.

“Excuse me, Mr. Sterling?” Amari walked up cautiously as if she were approaching a King or a wild beast. Alistair just kept staring off and dragging his cigarette. 

“I saw ye come in. Yer a player aren’t ye?” He said with droopy eyes.

“I’m sorry?”

“I saw that look in yer eyes - excited, in love, and downright pissed all at the same time. I’ve seen it before. Only true players come in with that look.” Amari looked at this unassuming man in complete awe.

“Yes,” she smiled. “I am.”

Alistair motioned for her to sit. “I’ll tell you what I’ve told the ones that have come before ye. I don’t do lessons because I don’t know how I do it. I just sit down and feel the keys and then it happens.”

Amari offered an assuring nod. “It’s a gift.”

Alistair scoffed and tossed his cigarette into the grass. “A gift to a twally' and a shite sickness for the likes of us.” He handed Amari a pint and leaned in close to whisper.

“You know the real secret Lassie?”

Amari shook her head. Alistair Sterling closed his eyes and smiled as waves continued to batter the jagged cliffs. 

“Just listen.” 

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