© Joe 90
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He sings because he is
Three notes, muted and unhurried, rise like heather-scented upcurrents of warm air.
They gently catch the bird’s wings, to lift his slight body high into the summer sky. Then he opens wide his throat and pours out wild, ecstatic melody that shimmers up and down the octaves; a free spirit ascending, vibrant, sublime.
Not even an experienced performer would deny a moment of gut fear, poised in the spotlight as the opening phrases announce that the Lark is about to ascend. It is a violin piece of exquisite intensity that requires virtuoso skill. The phrasing of the music is so precise that the slightest mistake will be glaringly obvious, while the dynamic range leaves the performer vulnerable to a lesser instrument that might lose its tuning. All told, it is not a piece to be esteemed lightly.
Tonight, a hush, accompanied by the customary stifled coughs in the packed auditorium; a good-natured finale to a varied programme in the closing night of the Vaughan Williams’ memorial concerts. I, however, am far from relaxed, and it is nothing to do with nerves. I close my eyes to concentrate, and inexorably the events of last Tuesday replay.
“We will have to operate now!” he said brusquely. “It has grown considerably since the last scan.”
I gaze uncomprehendingly at the ugly black mass for a few moments more, then Brian Goldworthy rips the image from the film viewer; his actions as decisive as his prognosis. I catch a final glimpse as he slides the x-ray into an envelope with my name emblazoned on the cover.
What am I supposed to say? He is my Consultant. He and his team will reach into my head, the most personal cubic centimetres of my entire being. Neurons that have fired reliably since I was born will be elbowed aside as they delve as deeply as they dare into my skull. I want to take charge of the situation, but it is out of my control. The pages of the music score are crumpled and illegible. My skills are utterly irrelevant.
My cancer. All mine, close to my motor cortex and invading my head space, pushing me, Steven Little and all my accumulated expertise, experience and personality aside. For just over a week I have lived with the unthinkable. Cancer is for other people; not me, a violinist at the zenith of my career. Life needs me to enhance and enrich its fabric. But there it is, my cancer, with a barcode below identifying me as the unlucky owner.
“When?” asks Miriam, stunned. Her grip on my hand is fierce, my fingers are turning numb.
“Monday, first thing. If in the meantime you experience painful headaches or blackouts, come in sooner for observation, otherwise we will have a bed available Sunday night.”
From now on I am a cancer patient; scribe it in red letters across my portfolio, “S. LITTLE- LEAD VIOLINIST AND BRAIN TUMOUR.”
Talk about “It”, or “the situation…” Listen to people saying “How are you?” then changing the subject hastily. Oh I know because I had done the same to others in their... um… er, condition.
The spotlight is burning my scalp. When I open my eyes the conductor is staring at me, waiting for the visual cue. Only I can’t focus on him. Count to ten, steady my racing heartbeat. one... two… three… close my eyes, there’s a bonfire in my skull, open them and everything is lopsided, a spectrum of unwanted colours have invaded my vision, so beautiful, like oil film on a puddle ... five... six..
“Are you alright?” hisses Gerald, second violin, leaning over to catch my eye. ...seven...eight... get a grip, Steven; nine...ten. Nod to him. Ready, cancer or not.
Three notes swelling up from the woodwind section. Repeat. Cue opening trill, bow poised, the graceful curve of the wood stretching the horsehair fibres taut, notes die away...
“Operating first thing…” “Will I be able to carry on playing?”
“Difficult to say in this case, some damage is inevitable... may not be able to co-ordinate motor functions properly again.”
My bow remains stuck at the start of its stroke. The only living thing in me is the pounding of blood through my ears.
“You had better sit down Mr Little, I’m afraid it’s not good news.”
The audience shuffle, this is too long a pause for artistic interpretation.
“I just can’t say…we won’t know until after the operation.”
Miriam, where are you? You said you would be here for tonight, my last concert for months, possibly ever. You’ve never let me down yet.
Miriam, my wife; oh no cancer, don’t take her from my memory. Don’t annihilate our treasured moments; leave something of the last decade for the remains of my brain to savour.
They’ve repaired the track now outside Birmingham just where the train picks up speed. But when I regularly travelled south it was a frequent source of annoyance. Eventually I learned to steady my coffee cup to save some of its contents as the train lurched over the points. The girl picking her way down the empty carriage was clearly not so used to this journey.
It had happened so rapidly, one moment I glanced her from the corner of my eye, the next a rush of warm, tumbling woman with a bob of chestnut hair, descending gracelessly into my lap.
“Oh! I’m sorry!” My coffee spilled, formed a pool, then leisurely began to drain away through a gap in the table trim.
“Please excuse me, I really am sorry!” She struggled to her feet only to be flung back as the train lurched again, this time more violently.
I couldn’t help but hold her in my arms, and inhale the fragrance of her perfume, an attractive girl, very attractive indeed, the startled expression on her face freezing an impression into my memory of a small mouth and dark, brown-green eyes that lit up her face. My empty coffee cup, rolling from side to side on the table in front of me went spinning.
“You must think I’m very forward, throwing myself at you like this.” She giggled to cover her mortification, and then- wonderfully- as the train lurched again, flung herself onto the corner of the opposite seat. After a few moments the jolting steadied as I knew it would. She half-rose from the chair.
“Stay there.” I seized her hands, pulling her back down. “There…there’s an even worse bit coming up, hold on…” Obligingly the train reeled and rattled once more.
I stared at her hands, they were so elegant! Smooth even skin tone tapering to wrists that I could have encircled with my thumb and first finger. I had thought my fingers slender, but hers were dwarfed by mine. I wondered what the owner of this pair of hands did for a living…
I heard a polite cough. The jolting had ceased. I was still holding her hands. She was gazing at me, colour rising in her cheeks.
“You can let go now,” she smiled nervously, “I’m not your wife.”
“Would you like to be?”
I hadn’t meant to say what I was thinking.
She caught her breath and stared at me and, astonished by my own temerity, I stared back. The train was picking up speed, the muted de-thub… de-thub... de-thub… of the wheels providing an ostinato to my humiliation. Through the trackside foliage the sunlight flickered making provocative patterns on her flushed skin.
Half formed sentences rose to clutter my mouth. “I mean... no this is ridiculous... I’m sorry.”
Another, longer train rushed past us, heading northwards. They leant towards each other like momentary lovers and the sunlight flickered at double speed. Then our train shot clear, racing past school playing fields. Purple and green shirts; playing rugby, a game I had always hated. Right now I’d give anything to be out there with them. Finally I released her hands. She fidgeted in agitation but said nothing.
“All tickets…pur-lease!” It should have been a welcome interruption. I fished my pass from my pocket: Patrick, the guard knew me as a regular and waved it away. But his eyes flashed, like the shards of sunlight from me to the girl and back again. Please, Patrick, now isn’t the time for our usual exchange of pleasantries…
He understood. “All tickets and passes from Birmingham, ladies and gentlemen…pur-lease!” He squeezed past us and into the next carriage.
She placed her punched ticket in a miniscule handbag and eased herself from her seat. She was going to leave. ‘Go!’ part of me implored, ‘leave me alone in my ignominy;’ but another voice cried out with equal insistence; ‘please, whoever you are don’t go; say something, help me.’
When I was an adolescent; suffocated by a new-found awareness of girls, captivated by their beauty, absorbed by their unfamiliar and sometimes impossible behaviour; I knew even then that it would take something extraordinary to bridge that gulf between Steven Little and the opposite sex. I had little or no confidence in female company. My mouth had a habit of becoming detached, my lips and tongue swinging loose and uttering half-formed phrases. The music of intelligent conversation would become dissonant and unplayable. Much easier to pick up the bow and elucidate a response from the instrument that I loved.
In a moment she would stalk away down the corridor. Tomorrow over a glass of wine she would say to her girl friends; “hey, guess what happened to me on the train yesterday? This weirdo asked me to marry him!” I could hear their laughter even now.
Her dark eyes were full on me; she straightened her skirt and sat back down. Her hands were in the cold coffee-puddle, but I don’t think she noticed.
“Why?” she asked.
For a moment I had forgotten the question. It was like a rash incident from childhood, so remote did it seem. For a few seconds more I favoured her with a blank look. “Why what?”
“Why is it ridiculous for you to ask me to marry you?”
“But we’re total strangers, aren’t we?”
She regarded me, her hands fidgeting still. “Steven Little, I’ve heard you play …”
“When? Where? Are you at the University…?”
“Please Steven, please just listen.” She was having difficulty forming her words; her breathing was erratic, out of rhythm. “I’ve heard you play several times in the Student Union concerts…”
“Were you sitting at the front? Night before last?”
“Yes, I don’t think you even glanced at me when I asked you to sign my programme.”
“I’m sorry; I get rather carried away after a performance…”
“I know,” she was becoming increasingly flustered. “Will you just let me say my piece? You are devoted to your music. You have extraordinary talent. I’ve never heard 'The Lark Ascending' played as you did the night before last. You made it sing.”
She had just noticed the coffee on her fingers and produced a crumpled tissue from her pocket. The paper became twisted and sodden. “What you do, you do with love and dedication.”
She drew a deep breath and finished in a rush; “For me that’s worth everything.”
The extraordinary moment had arrived. On a train, heading home, in a puddle of coffee.
“But you can’t possibly tell what some one is like from…well…the way they play the violin!”
“But then you can never tell anyway. You think you know somebody well, then they…oh never mind. What I’m trying to say is, if your approach to life is as serious as your playing, then count me in.” I was aware of her intense scrutiny. “You were serious, weren’t you?”
This just wasn’t happening. Overwhelmed by the pace and immensity of the events I drove my thumbs into my temples. The train entered a tunnel, emerging moments later.
“You didn’t mean it then?” she cried, snatching her handbag and standing up. “Look, I’m sorry, forget all this. I’ve made a prize fool of myself.” She looked around the empty carriage. “I’m just glad I don’t have an audience! Excuse me.”
I stood. Swaying gently in time to the train. In ten minutes we would be slowing for Cheltenham. I liked nothing more on this journey than to watch the changing scenery through the windows. The city and its suburbs were long past; fields, criss-crossed with country lanes, villages with church steeples and tidy farms now fled past. Something else was slipping away too. Something huge and life-altering.
“Wait!” The automatic door which had opened smoothly for her retreating form closed in my face. I hammered on the glass. “Wait!” This carriage was occupied. A newspaper dropped and faces stared in my direction as I fumbled for the button to open the door.
“Come back. I did mean it. I want you to marry me!”
Everybody in that carriage must have heard. She stopped, then turned slowly. Her eyes were wet. This was bizarre, dream-like. But it felt absolutely right.
“Please, what’s your name?” The family seated at the table nearest me gazed stupefied from me to her and back again.
The man with the newspaper made an unconvincing show of reading it again. The remainder of the passengers remained hushed. Two crimson-faced people facing each other in the centre aisle. The public address system burst out to remind the travellers that the buffet car was closing soon. I heard nothing. This had to be.
“Will you marry me?”
She rubbed her eyes clumsily with the back of her hand. Then broke into a smile.
“I’m Miriam. Yes I will. And do you want another coffee?”
That was ten years ago, during which I have never known a dull moment in her company or a truly fulfilled moment away from her. Touring with orchestras throughout Europe; places exotic, others drab. Packing our bags and moving on. Sometimes with money to burn, but mostly just scraping a living. Now when she’s working I travel alone unless she can get time off. Music comes a poor second now.
If I’m in the south-west, she will arrange her shifts to be there if practicable. Recently, with the big paycheques from the recording contracts and performance royalties, the sort of money we used to dream of, our plans have revolved around “Little Littles.”
I gaze abstractedly at my fingers, wondering what they are meant to do next. Dimly in my consciousness I can hear a slow handclap from the rear of the hall. The commotion increases, adding to the roaring in my ears. It’s all falling apart. Time to leave; walk out of that door and into whatever awaits me at the hospital. My career is over in a fog of misery.
“Steven! Steven, play it! Go on!”
She’s still in her uniform with the antiseptic smell of the ward about her, not fifteen feet from the stage, walking towards me, oblivious to the audience.
I shake my head; words are redundant.
“You’ve got to live through this. You can’t give up your music now.”
Her voice has a hard edge- the sort reserved for arguments when she is absolutely determined to have her way. “You’re going to fight it, note by note for as long as it takes. I’ll always be there, but I can’t do this for you.”
She is standing at the edge of the stage; “Please, Steve! Look at me!”
I meet her gaze. A timpanist drops a cymbal. In the hushed hall the sound is thunderous. Nobody stirs.
“Go on, for the three of us.” She is close to tears.
It is true then, one human being can draw strength from another; for in that moment, my deep, paralysing fears temporarily retreat, my fingers ignite and my lark rises into the cerulean sky.
Catching a late afternoon thermal he soars effortlessly aloft. The breezes are a heady mixture of moorland heather and lowland meadow, tinged with vivid green bracken slopes. Far, far, below the sheep bleat and the starlings quarrel. A tractor grinds through deepening grass.
Up here is quiet, and he comes to pour out his soul to emptiness, to give voice to melody that is so wild that it intoxicates. His song is a thanksgiving for life itself; neither does he need an audience.
My fingers live. They are wings beating the strings and shivering the air. They tap into a life that is not mine, yet lives in me- brief, urgent and exquisite.
Higher now, the landscape stretches away; to his senses as infinite as space. He will live two, maybe three years, then he will be gone, but into those moments he will pour music from the very dawn of creation, each song unique, droplets so sweet as to caramelise the Summer air.
He dives lower, wheeling above a country fair. The music of the carousel floats up, blending with his song burst, lilting back and forth on pillows of air, rising to a crescendo cascade of notes, trembling, poised and quintessentially alive.
The air of early evening is suffused. A trillion, trillion particles of dust laze in the now still atmosphere; they refract and tinge the lengthening rays of sunlight yielding hues of orange and peach. Far below the sounds of activity begin their nightly diminuendo.
The silver chain of sound trembles and recedes, the orchestra fades, leaving me to tell his last unction alone.
He sings because he is. Then he is gone.
A silence that lasts, twenty-five, thirty seconds; then a tumultuous roar of approval. A shouting, stamping acclamation that sweeps away the mood that I have created. My lark dwindles to mere notes on a page. The auditorium lights blaze.
I am almost falling from the stage. Miriam will drive me to hospital. Oblivious to the encores I clutch her for support. My life is lurching, but I know she will catch me, and hold me over this dire section of track. Eyes all around me, some swollen from the cathartic release of pure music tonight. Questions, voices, a squeeze of my shoulder, a touch to my elbow. I clutch her as a drowning man a piece of driftwood, caring little for anything else.
Whatever tomorrow may bring... Miriam, did you say “three of us?” A snap as she slips my seatbelt home. “Get some sleep,” she says. Too drained to argue I lie back in the front seat. Before I close my eyes I glance at her once more. I’ve never seen her looking so beautiful.
We made it sing tonight, Miriam, you and I.