Extract from The Violin Lover
The big clock in the hall read ten to four. Ned flipped through some sheet music impatiently; he hated waiting but had arrived earlier than anticipated. Too many memories were associated with years and years of waiting in halls like this, hearing muffled sounds of other people practising behind rows of closed doors. Somewhere a flute laughed, a cello moaned; the old windows in their warped frames vibrated to a timpani’s steady thud. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the damp, peeling wallpaper.
Back in Leeds, there had been a time when he tried to arrive early for music, to sit near Lucy Chadwick and watch her sharp white teeth bite into the red apple she invariably brought with her. Ivory teeth. Neat little bites like struck keys. Her piano lesson took place right across the hall from his violin class with the imperious Mr. Nash. But whereas Ned always arrived dishevelled (shirt untucked, boots scuffed), Lucy was the cleanest-looking person he had ever seen. Her nails were shining white moons and her hands spotless. She even smelled like rain.
Ned’s mother was extremely well groomed, but there was something counterfeit about her appearance. Maybe it was that he knew how much effort it cost for her to be fashionable; the haggling at the draper’s over each yard of stuff, the late nights sitting up over a pattern, the painstaking hand-stitching. But Lucy just sat there, fresh as the dawn of Creation, fair hair knife-edged and shining, eating her apple round and round. Her method fascinated Ned. She always finished with a symmetrically shaped core, which she picked up by the stem and popped back in her paper bag. Then she folded down the edge of the bag, ran a clean white finger along the edge to sharpen the fold, and dropped it in the dustbin.
Lucy seemed able to concentrate on one thing at a time and therefore to do it perfectly. But for Ned the world drifted, full of conflicting enticements.
So he munched apples absent-mindedly, spitting out the seeds, the sharp membrane at the centre caught between his teeth. Even in school it was hisquick-wittedness, not his concentration, that saw him through. From the tail end of a teacher’s query, echoing behind the sound of his own name, he could usually reconstruct the whole question and answer it. Lucy’s apples became an inspiration to sharpen his attention: to do only one thing at a time and to do it properly. Even now he thought of the sun as an apple that rose each day anew, to be eaten neatly round the core.
Lucy became aware of his attention and smiled back, shyly. Soon he started to bring apples, eating them in her methodical fashion. And after several weeks of companionable apple-eating, they began going for walks, first around the building and then outdoors in fair weather, meeting earlier and earlier. Sometimes they were actually late for their music lessons, running in apologetic and out-of-breath, having wandered too far, deep in conversation.
What did they talk about? Ned can’t even remember. All he recalls is the spontaneity of their exchanges: something new to him, who had been raised to scrutinise his every thought, to speak in accordance with the right motives and values or prepare to be cross-examined. At home, every conversation was a minefield. With Lucy, such caution was not required; he was free to sound silly, to contradict himself, to speculate without fear of reproach. She was a sweet soul, without prejudice or rancour, and as sensitive as he was.
But Lucy’s teacher must have said something to Lucy’s mother, who suddenly appeared, glamorous but unyielding, at the music school one day. They sat together across the hall from Ned, who heard the mother murmur, as she straightened, one by one, the soft kid fingers of her gloves, that Lucy should have nothing more to do with that shabby little Jew. Within weeks, their relationship was severed. Mrs. Chadwick changed Lucy’s lesson to another time, and he never saw her again. When his father disappeared a year later, Ned was better prepared for that loss than he had for his first, the loss of Lucy.
“Dr. Abraham?” called tentative young voice. Lucy? Ned opened his eyes with a start and saw not the distant bright angel of his dream but Jacob Weiss, rumpled, dark and boyish,
“Oh, how are you, Jacob? Excuse me, I must have nodded off.” He checked his watch. “I got here a bit early, and Miss Westerham hasn’t opened her door yet.”
“Well, sometimes she’s late. But I don’t mind,” Jacob hastened to add, “because she gives me extra time whenever that happens. She’s very nice, Miss Westerham.”
“You’re lucky. A nice teacher makes music much more fun. My first teacher, Mr. Nash, really he suited his name. He used to rap me across the knuckles with his baton when he got annoyed. And he got annoyed very easily.”
“Really?” said Jacob, horrified. “Miss Westerham would never hit anybody!”
“No, I doubt she would. Music makes her happy. But some people have higher expectations, I guess, or are more easily disappointed.”
“Is there a difference?”
“That’s a good question. I’d have to think about it more to be able to answer you.” said Ned, laughing.
“Well, I suppose you could have low expectations and still be disappointed all the time, like the Latin master at my school. He thinks we’re all idiots. He expects everyone to make stupid mistakes, but he’s still cross when we do!”
“There you go, then.”
“But could you have high expectations of people and not be easily disappointed?” Jacob wondered.
“I suppose so. If the people around you were terribly talented.”
“Or if you just thought they were. Like my mother. She thinks we’re all geniuses.”
“You mean you’re not? Then I’ve been misinformed, my good sir, and I believe we should cancel our rehearsal.”
Jacob burst out laughing, hugely relieved that this severe-looking man was kind after all. He hoped the music would go well, and they would become friends. Just then the door opened. A chubby blond girl trotted out, clutching her mother’s hand, and Miss Westerham’s deep contralto boomed, “Come in, come in! Let’s get started, gentlemen.”
Jacob picked up his music, Ned his violin, and they entered her big untidy studio. It was very hot, and the dusty windows bloomed with an amazing collection of African violets. Miss Westerham wore a tight-fitting purple tweed suit, which gave rather more emphasis than was attractive to her ample behind. Nonplussed by the sight of her and by the jungly smell of the violets, Ned momentarily forgot why he had come.
“Shall we dive right in?” the woman was asking. “Or would you rather talk about the piece first? How do you find the Rondeau? I’ve always found it a bit disappointing in a way. The Adagio is so unforgettable, but I can never keep the second movement in my head.”
“Perhaps we should play it first and see what we’ve each discovered on our own,” Ned suggested. “I’m sure we’ll find lots to talk about when we put the parts together.”
“How is that with you, Jacob?” Miss Westerham asked the boy.
Jacob was so nervous he just nodded. If he could only get to the piano, Mozart would rescue him, throw him a net of triplets flowing one over the other, hand over hand, and he wouldn’t have to speak at all.
Soon they were deep in the music, all three. Could they be hearing the same thing? Science has determined that the frequency of middle C is precisely 256 vibrations per second, but sensation alone is not meaning. To Jacob, middle C was home, the place you start from, safe haven. Even on the page it resembled a smiling face or a sun. But on Ned’s violin, the note had no special status. It was one of many gradations of sound, one colour in the rainbow. He did not orient himself from or to it; to him, there was no middle, for he did not see the notes laid out in a row. He felt for them along an infinite scale of possibility.
Miss Westerham, watching them, was struck — not for the first time — by the differences instruments elicit in those who play them. Violinists were swimmers, she felt, pulling and pushing the water back and forth with their arms and shoulders. They were inside the sound; it was their element. Pianists were more like climbers, scrabbling up a mountain whose peak glinted above the clouds like a mirage. Or maybe it was just a matter of scale, the violin being so small, warm, and mammalian, nestled beside the chin; the piano glittering black and white, slate and marble, dwarfing whoever sat at it.
But at the same time, the piano was bright and the violin dark, befitting their vintage. Innocence and experience, the mind oblivious to limit while the body sways under its own weight. And the contrast between the two was emphasised by the piece the man and boy were playing together: K30, the sonata in F major: the keyboard part beautifully lyrical and at the same time energetic, the violin melancholy and restrained, anticipating each modulation to the minor.
Miss Westerham listened, enthralled. The meaning of the piece had never been so clear to her before, and she felt sure that the audience at the spring concert would see it the way she did; it was as lucid as reading the score. And she would have her triumph. For in spite of her lumpy figure and her garish wardrobe, Miss Westerham had her pride. She knew well enough how Dr. Abraham saw her, and she knew well enough how he saw a beautiful woman like Magda Tabori. She did feel a small pang at what she had missed out on in life and a greater one at how misprized her real accomplishments were. But she could tell from Ned’s increasing excitement that she would make a convert of him, perhaps even a friend, and that her chief concern, Jacob’s talent, would be cherished.
© copyright Susan Glickman 2006