winner Non Fiction
Retracing the Mind
My father used to make flutes by hand. Everyday, I would watch him choose the material; some
days it would be wood, others clay and sometimes even bamboo.
I would watch him spend hours carving and shaping just a single flute, never happy until it
was perfectly in tune, with a voice that would ring out through his studio and into the streets
beyond. Often, he would find imperfections in his work and cast them out into a great skip he had
just for that purpose, before starting on a new one with even more enthusiasm, striving to make it
As he worked, he used to tell me that music could soothe the soul and heal the mind from
any illness or depression, allowing both the musician and audience to free themselves of the worries
of modern living. He said that it was for this reason that only the most exceptional flutes he made
would pass his approval; for how could one make fine music without a fine instrument?
When he wasn't looking, I would take one of the flutes he had discarded and play it when I
was alone in the woods. I could never play as well as he could, but these flutes that he simply threw
away because they weren't up to his standard sounded beautiful anyway. Whether or not they I
soothed my soul, I don't know, but they did calm me down after a difficult day at school.
As the years went on, father threw out more and more flutes, never happy with what he was
working on. At first I thought that he was just striving too much for perfection, but, the day after my
youngest daughter was born, he was diagnosed with early onset dementia.
The disease progressed rapidly, and he was taken into care barely a year after his diagnosis.
It was a hard decision, but my mother could no longer care for him, and with my growing family
and my work at the museum of Natural History, I couldn't either.
Visiting him was difficult, because the man I knew was no longer there. He could barely
remember his name, let alone his love for music, and I would often leave close to tears.
Then one day, while the museum was receiving a large shipment of artefacts, I discovered
an unusual flute. It looked a bit like some of the clay ocarinas he used to make, but it had two sound
holes, meaning that there were two chambers inside that made it possible to play two notes at once.
The description that came with it was that it had been made by the Incas in Pre-Columbian Peru,
and was thought to have been used to achieve a higher spiritual awareness.
As I held it, I found a strong urge to show it to him. Usually the artefacts that we receive are
only allowed outside the museum for transportation to other museums, but my boss knew about my
father's condition and let me take it to him, strictly as a one off between the two of us.
When I arrived at the care home later that evening, I found him arguing with one of the
assistants, adamant that they were poisoning his food. I broke in quickly, apologising for his
behaviour, and took him into his private room.
Deciding that he had calmed down enough, I took out the ancient flute from my bag and
carefully unwrapped it. Up to that point, he had been staring at the wall, but as I put the flute to my
lips and blew into it, hazarding a guess at where to place my fingers, he turned to look at me. I
continued to play, lifting my fingers to change the clear, strong notes coming out of it, and I could
have sworn I saw a spark come back into his eyes.
'Where did you get that?' he asked. I almost dropped the flute on the floor. It was the first
coherent sentence he had spoken in years, and I knew at once that he was lucid. I told him what
little I knew about it, and he took it off of me and examined it, nodding here and there as he
approved of the craftsmanship.
Then he put it to his lips and played it himself. At that moment I finally understood what
he'd been telling me; for the sound coming out of it made every anxiety I'd ever had disappear. My
mind was clear and I felt more alive than I had been since his diagnosis. I knew he felt it too, and
for hours afterwards we sat and talked like we used to before he was ill.
Even now, six years after his passing, I will never forget that day. The power of music really
is amazing; and my father was amazing for realising it.