Trevor sat still and silent at one end of the dimmed high school auditorium’s 20-seat front row. Back straight, hands folded on his lap, and gaze fixed on centre stage, he admired the long, blonde locks that fell shy of Competitor 18’s puff-sleeve dress shoulders. This was the third consecutive year they and 18 other 11-year-old Royal Conservatory of Music piano students would vie for Middlesex County’s Kiwanis Festival gold medallion, but the first during which his palms had felt sweaty.

While he respected the accuracy with which the two-time runner-up now performed the same Handel minuet they all had or would, she was no threat to his three-peat. Confident in his own talent, he attributed the butterflies to his having to wait for supper, as per his mother’s celebration party itinerary.

She looked cuter than she did last year, he thought. Her recital dress was new, but no more pretty than the one had she worn last year with the same patent leather Mary Janes and white tights. Something about the wrinkle in her freckled button nose as she keyed a tricky trill, eyelids closed during an extended rest and her lower lip’s half-pucker when she turned the page now grabbed him in an unfamiliar way.

The two girls in his grade five class at school were hot, but neither had inspired the attraction he felt. Not even Candi DiPaola, who he had liked weeks before he snuck into their empty classroom during lunch break to pull the journal notebook from her desk and discover pages of doodled hearts within which their initials and T.L.F. were written in red ink, made him feel the way she did now. Captivated to her final note, he joined the family member-populated audience in polite applause as she left the stage.

The self-satisfied smile she wore as she stepped down the stairs suggested she thought well of her chances. Too bad for her, Trevor mused. Tonight, hundreds of hours of after school practice on the secondhand upright at home would again be cashed in for gold.

He shut his eyes as the adjudicator called Competitor 19 to the stage and allowed his mind to drift as the heavyset ginger boy to his immediate right rose from his seat.

He recalled the afternoon it had started, three years earlier. He and his older sister Charlie had arrived home from school and, as they did every weekday, exchanged their backpacks in the front closet for their street hockey sticks and gloves to join the cul-de-sac kids. “Hi, guys!” shouted Mom from another room.

“Hi, Mom!” Charlie shouted. “We’re going out front to play!”

“Wait! I have to tell Trevor something!”

“Ha ha,” teased Charlie as she raced out the door.

“Come in, Trev! I’ve got a surprise for you.”

He stared out the screen door. “Geez, Mom. They’re picking teams!”

“Put your stick away and come inside.”

He sighed, leaned his stick against the wall, and then ambled to the living room still gloved in hope she would know he was eager to play. She grinned and motioned to a secondhand, chestnut brown upright piano, like one of Barker’s Beauties showcasing an Amana range for Contestant’s Row, as he entered.

“Happy birthday, honey! It’s your present from me, your sister, and your dad!”

Trevor appeared confused. “A piano?”

“Isn’t it great? It took some scrimping, but we love you so much that we wanted to give you something special, something you’ll be able to enjoy for the rest of your life!” He’d never seen her smile so wide.

He glanced out the front window as Charlie backhanded a balding tennis ball over the goalie’s blocker, top shelf. “Thanks, Mom,” he said, annoyed at his showboating sister’s excessive fist pumps. “Can I go outside now?”

His mother’s smile evaporated. “Don’t you want to hear about the rest of your present?”

“Yeah, all right,” he sighed, his voice laden with resignation.

Her brow furrowed as she set her hands on her hips. “Well, don’t sound too excited.”

“Sorry.”

“And guess what? Her smile returned. “I’ve signed you up for lessons! And—surprise, surprise!—you start in an hour. That gives you enough time for a quick snack before I drive you to your teacher’s apartment.”

“What if I don’t want to play the piano?”

Her mouth opened in hyperbolic shock. “After we spent so much? No sir-ee, little man. Now, put those gloves in the closet and go wash up while I fix you some milk and cookies.” She patted him on the shoulder, and then turned for the kitchen.

“Mom?”

“Stop whining and hurry up, Trev!” He looked out the window again as Charlie high-fived her teammates after scoring another goal.

Startled by Competitor 19’s elbow to his upper arm, he jerked his head right.

It’s your turn.

The adjudicator, who sat in silhouette at a table behind the audience, lowered his reading glasses. “Is Competitor 20 present?”

Trevor’s opponents snickered as he bolted from his seat to start his walk to the stage stairs. Ankles crossed, Competitor 18 stuck her legs out in what to him seemed an obvious effort to trip him up. She held him there until the adjudicator called his number once more and then swung her feet back under her seat to let him by.

He scaled the wooden stairs on unsure legs and, as he approached the bench, glanced at the audience to catch Charlie in the midst of a giant yawn. He didn’t blame her. Everyone had sat through 19 playings of the same piece and had probably heard it practiced at home too many times to count.

Now on the bench and with his fingers set over the opening keys, he shut his eyes. His thoughts drifted to Miss Kobrina, a Persian concert pianist who had impressed European audiences as a touring child prodigy in the 1960’s before her emigration to Canada. He imagined her standing behind him, as she would during lessons, leaning forward so the ends of her straight, black hair tickled his forearm enough to distract him into making errors which earned the sting of the hard, rubber-tipped end of a stainless steel, telescopic pointer she used to turned music book pages. By the start of his third year, she expected him to sight-read new pieces mistake-free. When he erred…WHACK! “You can do better!” she demanded. “Start again!” And so he did, and then again, until she believed he was prepared for the final test. “Now, you do blindfold.”

Audience applause snapped him back to the here and now. He stood and then returned to his seat to wait with the others, as the adjudicator tallied and compared scores. An over the shoulder look for his mother instead caught Miss Kobrina’s obsidian eyes. She smiled as she motioned with a hand for him to turn and face the stage.

To his right, Competitors 19 through 15 were goofing around, as school-aged children forced to sit too long will do, but he stared at the grand piano, as Miss Kobrina had ordered.

He wondered how his mother could fail to see that he played not because he enjoyed it, but out of fear that he might disappoint her? She had to know, and the realization now led him to sense she had betrayed his desire for fun by dismissing it, even to the point of willfully ignoring the marks that appeared on his hands after weekly lessons.

His father appeared to understand, when he was home, and sought compromise by bringing him sheet music from his favourite television show theme songs—The Six Million Dollar Man, SWAT, Hawaii Five-0—but that only meant more time at the piano. Why was it called “playing the piano” when it had nothing to do with play, he wondered.

The lanky, middle-aged adjudicator cleared his throat, white afro bouncing as scaled he the steps to the stage. He drew his eyeglasses and a set of note cards from his crested blazer’s inside pocket, and then stole a few seconds before he addressed the crowd. “First, my thanks go out to this year’s participants, and not only for their inspired performances. I am equally grateful for how well they’ve trained their parents and instructors. Not a single cough or sneeze!” The weak audience response suggested he should lose the comedy and get on with it.

“Now, before we proceed, I’d like to share something you may not know about Handel’s “Minuet in A# Minor.” It is, in fact, a wonderful example of the style galant which was associated with French music marked by a return to classical simplicity, after the complexity of the late Baroque period.” He cast a sneer on the crowd as long, loud yawn from Charlie now drew the laughs he had sought a moment before.

He flipped his cards. “There were several excellent performances this evening, but two stood out for me.” Trevor glanced at Competitor 18, who sat up in her seat at the adjudicator’s words. “Both were technically perfect. To be sure, they were so precise that I find myself in the awkward position of being unable to decide which competitor is most deserving of 1975’s medallion. As such, I have consulted the Festival Rulebook, and have found an official remedy. According to rule 15, section 3, paragraph (a), I am bound to ask all present to remain seated as Competitors 18 and 20 play the piece for us once more.” A few quiet sighs escaped from the audience. “Now, people. I know you don’t want to miss Charlie’s Angels, the Leafs’ overtime period, or whatever else you watch at home, but there really is no other way.”

The adjudicator returned to his table, settled himself, and then called Competitor 18 to the stage. Trevor watched her hopscotch over and around the also-rans’ outstretched legs. A smile crossed his lips as she tucked the back of her dress under her thighs while seating herself on the bench and then rested the ball of her shiny right shoe over the sostenuto pedal.

He shut his eyes as her fingers hit the keys. This time, his mind did not wander. He listened with vigilance for an error that would not materialized. Her second attempt was indeed as clean as the first.

His hands curled into tight fists as he considered her subjection to the same daily rigour he had been forced to endure. He was proud of her, knowing she had stepped up in spite of it, and—though he had yet to kiss a girl on the lips—he imagined how soft hers might feel if pressed gently to his own.

He smiled as she gave him a “beat that” look on her way back to her seat.

“Thank you, 18. And 20?”

As he climbed the stairs, Trevor debated whether he should throw his opportunity at a three-peat. His mother and Miss Kobrina would be gutted, but losing might relieve some of the pressure they put on him to excel.

Back on the bench, he reset his fingers over the keys and played. His subtle shoulder sway induced a weightlessness in his arms. Soon, he was Guy LaFleur, hair and jersey rippling as he split the defence to earn a clean breakaway. He was Evel Knievel soaring over umpteen Greyhound buses. He was Rocky Balboa, flying high now. And, as he held the final note a half-second after the strings’ vibration had stilled, he knew he had nailed it again. The patient audience offered another kind round of applause as he opened his eyes.

The adjudicator waited for Trevor to take his seat before he took the stage. “This was the first time,” he announced, “that I have invoked the playoff rule, at any level of competition. Both pianists repeated their proficient first playings. However, the rules make room for only one playoff round per competition. So, I find myself in the difficult position of having to decide between two fine performances. It reminds me of the time, when I too was a young, up and coming virtuo—”

Cut off by a seven-second didgeridoo-like fart blown by Competitor 19, he held his ground as the pianists scattered left and right, amid a chorus of belly laughs from the crowd.

“He stole your thunder!” heckled a parent.

“Ha ha ha ha ha ha!”

“Please!” shouted the adjudicator. “Competitors, take your seats! And would audience members please control yourselves! This is serious business!”

“Ha ha ha ha ha ha!”

The musicians, who now settled back into their seats, took visible relief in knowing the adjudicator would want to vacate the stage ASAP. “As I was about to say, given what we’ve heard from our playoff performers, I relied on my extensive knowledge of the composer’s life and works to consider he might have played the minuet himself. In other words, I have determined which pianist’s interpretation had come nearest to his intention based on touch. And so, it is my honour to present—on behalf of the Middlesex County Kiwanis Club—this year’s gold medallion award for grade three Royal Conservatory of Music piano to London’s very own Competitor 20, Trevor Swain.” The crowd offered an extended round of applause. “Trevor, please join me on stage to receive your prize.”

Trevor stood up, but held his place when he noticed Competitor 18 hide her weeping eyes with her hands. He stopped before her, and then leaned near to whisper. She lowered her hands as her pouted lips lift into a small smile, and then took the hand he offered before he led her to the stairs.

The adjudicator moved fast, to intercept them before they had made it to the stage floor. “I’m sorry,” he whispered with agitation, “but there can be only one winner. Competitor 18, I must ask you to return to your seat.”

Trevor’s spine tingled as she stroked the back of his hand with the soft pad of her thumb. “Could I have the medallion then, please?”

“Well, we’ve invited a photographer from the London Free Press who wants a picture for the morning paper.”

“Not unless Competi—” He stopped, and turned to face her. “What’s your name?”

Her blue eyes sparkled under stage lighting. “Hope.”

“Not unless Hope comes with me,” said Trevor, with a voice loud enough for the audience to pick up. The adjudicator pointed at the front row, and ordered the girl back to her seat with a gangly index finger.

“Let her up! Let her up! Let her up!” the crowd chanted.

Hope let go of Trevor’s hand, and then kissed him on the lips.

“Awwwwwww!”

“Woo-woo!”

The pair gazed into each other’s eyes as the flustered adjudicator drew the plastic-cased medallion from a pocket. A parent’s wolf whistle sounded as he held it out for Trevor. who was too busy returning Hope’s kiss to receive it.

***

Trevor’s mom checked her appearance in the rearview mirror as they waited for a traffic light to change. “I’m so proud of you, honey. I can’t wait to tell your aunties and the PTA girls.” He stared at his reflection in the passenger-side window. “May I see your medallion?”

“Why? It’s just like the others.”

“Because it’s important to me, that’s why.” Trevor reached for the radio, only to have the back of his hand smacked halfway there. “Medallion, please?” She held out her palm as the traffic light turned green.

“I don’t have it.”

“What? Don’t tell me you left it at the auditorium.” The driver of the car behind them double-tapped his horn.

“No.”

“Well, where is it then?” Two car horns blared from the rear. “I’m waiting.”

“You should drive, Mom,” Charlie advised from the back seat.

She turned off the ignition, rolled down the window, and then waved those behind them around. “Let’s have it, little man.”

“I gave it to Hope.”

Her jaw dropped as she turned to face him. “Hope? You mean the girl who kissed you?”

“She played as well as I did.”

“Trevor’s in lo-ove. Trevor’s in lo-ove,” his sister teased, until her mother’s stern eyes met hers through the rearview mirror.

“Wrong. You won, fair and square.”

“How do I find her phone number?”

“Good question. We’ll need to know to get your medallion back.”

Charlie flipped through the competition program as mom entered the intersection. “She’s from Granton.”

“Is that close by?” asked Trevor.

His mother frowned. “She’s a farm girl.”

“She’s a good kisser.”

“You’re too young to have a girlfriend.”

A dozen silent seconds passed. “Anyway, I’m done with piano.”

“You need a break, that’s all. Summer holidays start next month and, after your exam next week, you won’t have to play again until September.”

“I want an electric guitar.”

“Cool!” said Charlie. “I-I-I wanna rock ‘n’ roll all n-i-ight …

“…and party ev-er-y day!