The European Short Story Network

Dilys Rose

Music for a While

This is a story about two musicians. It could have been a story about a solo musician but isn’t because a solo musician is a rare and lonely creature, even if an unquantifiable number of musicians wish or have at some point in their lives wished to be just that – the one and only one who is listened to especially closely in the tense, rarefied air of a concert hall. No, this is a story about a duo, classical as it happens. They could have been folkies, rockers, jazzers, rappers, hip-hoppers and so on but I’m sticking with my original plan here. I’m not turning them into musicians who might appeal more from the nature of what they play to a younger, cooler audience. I’m not young or cool and couldn’t care either way. What I do care about is that these people put in hours and hours of practice every day. They are clean cut and clean living. Mostly. Nobody’s perfect. In public they favour crisp white shirts, pressed black trousers or skirts, polished shoes. Their hair is clean and usually tidy though sometimes they let their locks grow wild and tangled, not to be up to date but to make a connection with wild and tangled virtuosi of the past. They wear no interesting or alarming facial piercings unless they have a pathological hankering to be considered rebels. Go back a hundred years, two hundred, and this pair wouldn’t look very different from how they look today. How they looked yesterday is another matter. How they looked last night. Late last night. Very. Long past the witching hour when sensible classical musicians should be abed in a nice room if they are lucky, a not-so-nice boarding house if they are not, instruments safely by the bedside – unless they are pianists, harpists or timpanists – and their clothes for the following day’s concert pressed and pristine and hanging in an unfamiliar wardrobe. As musicians travel a lot, they learn to settle in quickly and adapt to whatever facilities are available.

Our two musicians in question are young, very young, not yet twenty, though they have played, separately and together, in a total of twenty-three countries. But I’ve been vague so far. I should be more specific. Musicians is a very vague term. Anybody who plays an instrument, any instrument, might be termed a musician. And I haven’t even mentioned their gender, appearance, background. OK, so one boy, one girl. The boy plays violin, very very well, the girl piano, equally well. All their lives they have worked hard and now are rewarded, when they walk on stage, by the warm wave of applause which crashes over them before they have played a note. They have also been rewarded with the freedom and privilege of international travel. They buy their shoes in Italy, sunglasses in Singapore, have their jackets made to measure in Hong Kong or Hanoi. The boy’s violin was made five thousand miles from his birthplace and has a lineage all of its own. The girl rarely travels with her instrument. She makes do, within reason, with whatever piano is available at her destination. She has learnt which questions to ask though she is becoming aware that, at the other end, people answer her questions without always telling her what she needs to know. The boy and girl share the same surname but I don’t want them to be related. Not siblings at any rate, though second cousins might be worth considering. Making them second cousins allows for more interesting interpersonal possibilities: close but not too close for most of us to worry about the increased statistical likelihood of babies they might conceive being born with an insufficient or surplus number of digits. Were the opportunity to arise, our duo would be free to be attracted to each other, to go forth and multiply should they so wish, without wagging tongues and rolling eyes, or whispers behind closed doors. Not that sexual chemistry is uppermost in the mind of either the boy or the girl at the time of this story. Later, who knows, but for now there are many more pressing considerations. Much has been invested in these two young people. Since they were old enough to master the art of loading a spoon with mush and directing it successfully into a mouth, it was noticed by an observant parent or relative that each, having eaten their fill, began to beat spoon against bowl in a pleasingly rhythmic manner and, happily full-bellied, to sing along to the beat. In hushed, reverential tones the realisation was voiced: Musical! The observant parents or relatives muttered this faintly worrying miracle to other parents, relatives or friends who paused in their tea sipping, wine swigging, card playing, mixing of cement or shuffling of lecture notes – we could choose a virtuously poor family, a mildly corrupt but comfortable family, even a flawed, wealthy family. We could choose a calmly controlling or chaotic, free-wheeling family, a childhood paradise, a domestic nightmare or one of the many hues between extremes. But whoever those observant parents or relatives might have been, they also realised, with a heady fizz of pride and awe, that their child must have an instrument and learn to play it. Well. Their child who, fortunately, was also blessed with a photogenic smile and bodily charm, must stay indoors while others ran free in sun or snow, must practise in the evenings while classmates watched TV or listened to the latest hits, must rise early while others indulged in slumber, must be discouraged from engaging in activities which might damage priceless hands, must at all times be mindful of the special gift from God and/or genetics. And make the most of it, for everybody’s sake: for himself or herself, whether or not the gift was of any special interest to its possessor; for the parents, who hoped to benefit from their gifted child in incalculable, though mostly financial ways; for the dignitaries in their home town, state, country who would, if anything came of the family’s investment, claim the children and the gift as their own and use them to put an otherwise insignificant place on the cultural map. Not that our musicians constantly keep in mind this imposed role of ambassador, mascot, glorified example, local resource. Especially now that they have reached the dizzy heights which their parents hoped, prayed, saved and paid through the nose for them to reach, now that they are up in the rarefied firmament of success by virtue of their talent and hard work – there are times when, if they are honest with themselves, the boy and girl really couldn’t care less whether the mayor, the minister of culture or the local TV anchorperson approves of them.

But let me go back to where I left off. Perhaps a little further back. The boy and girl were waiting in the airport departure lounge of the capital city of their homeland. They had checked in their baggage and gone through security, where the boy’s violin case was thoroughly searched in case it might have contained something untoward: unaccountable wads of cash, illegal substances, firearms or explosives, even though three security officers professed to have heard the duo play live and could attest to their status as bona fide musicians. They were playing a game of chequers. The boy preferred chess but the girl had no time for its slow march of strategic moves. Chequers was a compromise. And playing chequers in airports had become a tradition. Both played to win, always. Competition was in their blood. Whether it had always been there or wormed its way into them and between them at some stage of their careers, who knows. The girl was winning the third game in a row and the boy was becoming bored – he was always keener when he was ahead – when an announcement came over the tannoy that all flights would be delayed. Screens which had previously blinked lists of arrivals and departures now showed blurred, flashing footage of something happening in the city centre. Red text ran along the bottom of the screens: Rebels from the Liberation Army had taken control of the conservatoire. During an end of term concert, they had burst into the packed hall and barricaded the doors. Some had grenades. Others sub-machine guns. It had not been established whether any were wired up to explosive vests but police were not ruling out the possibility. The boy and girl stared dumbly at the screen. They had been invited to visit the conservatoire, their conservatoire, to take part in that very concert, as guests of honour. Not long before, one of their former teachers had written to invite them, beg them in fact, to give a short recital and perhaps stay to hear some of the up-and-coming talent. As they had a previous and infinitely more prestigious international engagement, they had declined. It might just have been possible to fit in an appearance before their flight but it would have been a rush and rushing wasn’t good for people who had to perform at a major international festival the following day. Calm was required, relaxation, if possible. Practice. The boy had been firm about turning down the conservatoire. The girl had been willing to try to squeeze it into their tight schedule. They had argued, he declaring insistently that it was too much trouble, she, equally insistently, that for old time’s sake they should try to go, to give something back to the place which had nurtured them until awards and prizes brought personal mentors, private rehearsal rooms and the big wide world of fame and fortune. They had argued but not seriously. The conservatoire would invite them another time. As it was, it invited them rather too often. On the screens, a shaky lens panned over the inside of the concert hall. The boy and girl clutched each other. Tightly. Of course they knew people trapped in the concert hall. Friends, teachers, rivals – most of the crucial relationships of their lives were bound up with just about everybody in that baroque hall with its cherubs and cobwebs, its turquoise and coral pink walls, its electric chandeliers, the smell of uncured sheepskin and the dampness of autumn. Friends, teachers, rivals were being shoved about and shouted down by ragged rebels. The boy and girl knew some of what the rebels wanted: uniforms – new, clean uniforms, made of sturdy cloth. With brass buttons. In close-up a girl packed away her flute at gunpoint, then the newsflash finished abruptly and the screens went blank. In the departure lounge the delayed passengers roared and wailed and paced around. Some, who also had personal connections to the scene of the siege, tried to go back through security but the guards had their guns up. Nobody was going anywhere. Yet. Flights would be delayed. Further information would be forthcoming. Later. In the meantime, passengers were instructed to keep calm and behave sensibly. Nobody could get a signal on a mobile phone. Landlines were blocked. The girl shrank into herself. The boy stared out into the dark at the grounded planes. His thoughts made him flush with shame. Along with worrying about the siege, the question of whether he would play the Debussy kept hammering away in his head. The concert the following day was to have been their first public performance of the violin sonata. It the last piece Debussy wrote, the last piece he played. Hours a day they’d been practising, for months. It was as good as it was ever going to get at this stage in their young lives. The boy loved the piece. So did the girl. It stretched them, pushed them to the limit. To think about playing the Debussy was wrong. A dishevelled man, arms raised to the heavens, shambled up to them. – Fiddler boy, he said. Play something. Play something. Fiddler boy. Any fucking thing. For a long time the boy and the man stared at each other in appalled silence then yes, the boy opened the case, took out the violin, checked the tuning quickly, quietly, and raised it to his chin. And yes, people turned their heads to the source of the sound. And the sound was so beautiful and solemn it soothed their blistered hearts. They listened, they heard, and saw in their minds all the twists and turns of a life, the halting steps, the reckless leaps in the dark, the grey mist and the red, the pull of spirit and of blood. The boy played and the girl tapped a ghostly accompaniment into the stained, gritty plush of the seat. Sometimes they closed their eyes, sometimes they looked out into the dark, where the planes stood, in the dark spaces between the landing lights. They didn’t entertain their fellow travellers until take-off. They played a half-audible, half silent version of Debussy’s final sonata then sat mute for several hours. As did most of the other travellers. Every so often somebody cracked and tried to storm the security barriers. Several shots were fired. Nobody was hurt but two women and one man were taken away by the guards.

Sometime after midnight, the plane took off. And in the small hours arrived at its destination. After a long wait for a taxi and a long drive into the sleeping city, the boy and girl were dropped outside their hotel. Their clothes were crumpled, their hair wild and tangled. They were about to climb the marble steps to the glass and chrome revolving door when a couple of all-night revellers lolloped across the deserted street, wrenched the violin case from the boy’s hands, slammed it against the hotel railings and sauntered off. Their guffaws hung in the still air. Dawn was breaking. The boy and girl were booked to play at noon. They were very, very tired.

(An earlier version of this story was previously published in Freedom Spring – Ten Years On, edited by Suhayl Saadi)

Story © Dilys Rose 2012

European Cultural Foundation Chapter ∓ Verse Kikinda Short Nederlands Letterenfonds Manchester Literature Festival NORLA Goethe Institut Creative Scotland