The girl with the violinby Michael Spring
She came in waving the violin, smiling, looking as though she had just consigned us all to hell.
She was how old? Mid-twenties maybe. A squarish jaw, wide mouth, shiny brown hair cascading over bare shoulders, alarmingly blue eyes.
She set herself, standing, nodded at us and then launched into it. Fascinade for solo violin, early Yekholov apparently, although by then all I could see was a blur of the bow, the sway of a shoulder, the lights glinting in her hair.
The room seemed crowded with noise. After two minutes, she had told me everything I needed to know about the human condition, the inevitability of decay, the importance of truth, the need to stand against adversity.
She told me too, about the riches awaiting the one who could meet her commitment with special meaning. For someone, someone who makes a bit emotional investment, spectacular rewards awaited. It was as much a confession as a promise.
I looked at my shoes, but the music chased me down. Polish cavalry, pennants attached to their glittering lances, galloped across my eye-line. A small thin man, almost naked and wearing glasses, sat down in the road to confront some oncoming horses. Keats' pen froze, having heard a midnight bird.
And then, as suddenly as it had come, it was all gone. All that remained was the girl and her violin. She looked smaller, diminished somehow, as though she had condensed into some more compact substance. Her mouth made a gesture something like an exhausted smile (of contempt perhaps?) and she cocked the violin against her hip. In that pose, she could have liberated Paris.
I heard Margaret ask her something. The answer was disappointing, not in terms of what she said of course. I had no ear for that, but the way she said it was tentative, immature, with that fashionable lilt that begins as though the end of the sentence is to be emphasised, and then lets the final word down with a jolt.
Kieran, the second member of our panel, said something patronising. I saw him smiling at her and was reminded of treacherous acts through the ages, acts which lacked nobility, betrayals, thirty pieces of silver. Worse was when she smiled back, but I put that down to immaturity.
Margaret mentioned my name. I was the junior that day. I asked about her heroes.
To my surprise, she mentioned, among others, Macken.
Macken was a near contemporary of mine, an ex-lover once, but one whose name already stood for lost opportunity, for sell out in the face of money, for weakness and an inability to lift his head above the gutter where he, musically at least, now reclined.
Still, he had shown some early promise, and I remembered his playing at a charity function in some grand hall, which I hadn't thought about since that day, but yes, his playing had sometimes then a lyrical eloquence to it, which others had never discovered. There might have been a CD or two, but how had she found out about him?
No, I had no more questions.
What was she then, a gypsy as well as a sorcerer? A wanderer whose life would always be flawed, though that flaw would be buried deep within her, (because needing that complementarity, her opposite) or just an outsider, the perfect exterior hiding glittering metal at the core of her being? The strength might have been an illusion, but there was too, her capacity to see and to understand, which cut through her playing. She was an enigma.
When she had left the room Margaret asked, "Should we offer her the place? And the scholarship? It seems to me that this girl is the only really credible candidate. The boy with the French horn was competent of course, but still…"
It wasn't really my place to speak. I was the youngest member of the interview panel, hardly older or more experienced than the girl. But of course the offer was made, and in due course rejected, in favour of some more extravagant largesse from some more prestigious institution.
It was twenty years before I saw her again.
She was picking up the threads of her career once more. I read about this in the newspaper one day, and then I heard her interviewed on the radio. Her voice was more measured, contained now, with, occasionally, just a hint of hysteria. Perhaps I imagined it.
She had been married to a crusading politician once. No children. No time for them I supposed. I remembered her standing alongside him in protests, on marches, behind populist barricades. No time for her career either, though she had performed a little in the early years after their marriage.
She was recently divorced. Now, he was a senior member of the opposition party, his past just one facet of his current credentials. He was a rising star by all accounts, and had been interviewed a lot recently.
"There came a time when I thought I might effect more change from within the establishment than by agitating for change as an outsider. That's when I joined the party." He had chosen one of her recordings as part of his set to take to the fictional desert island in the radio show. It seemed that their parting had not prompted malice, on his side at least.
I wondered what had inspired his ex-wife to announce her intention to take up her career once more.
It was of course, madness in the extreme to expect any kind of success. Even work as an ensemble player might well be beyond her now and she had never been an ensemble player. She relied on brilliance, not competence. And even then, even if her technical ability survived the years, the jealousy of younger generations, by now established, might undermine any purpose or commercial potential.
In a late night radio programme, they gave her the opportunity to play something. She chose Alderberg's Lament in G, which showed some discrimination. It was not however, a success. Inaccuracy abounded, and only once or twice had there been a glimpse of the fire that had pierced our hearts that day in the college. Perhaps there was more to come. Somehow, I doubted it.
I thought then that someone close to her will explain, have her understand, that what she desires simply cannot be. Surely there would be a financial settlement from the wreck of her marriage that would save her from humiliation?
What could she turn to? I could see her at charity functions, sipping from crystal glasses, or serving (I imagined her looking thoughtful, her spectacles on the desk before her) as a learned member of a committee whose role it is to advise the powerful on musical issues. I could think of her as a lobbyist for the arts amongst the rich friends and associates of her estranged husband. This surely, was her destiny.
I turned off the radio and thought no more about it. I had enough to do just then keeping the magazine's head above water.
A musician cannot, I became aware a few years back, teach for ever, especially when one's own capabilities are not of the first rank — a statement about myself which few if any have ever even gestured to contradict. And so, as editor of Fugue, I carry on, without any soaring ambition. Without any ambition at all really, except to get the next edition of the ludicrously expensive volume into the hands of its miniscule circulation.
Ironically, Macken is now my west coast correspondent.
Even his time probing the depths as a writer of 'film music', while reputedly acting as escort to a number of actors getting on in years, failed to provide a sufficiently lavish income for one of Macken's taste and inclination — now supposed by some Hollywood commentators to include an extensive appreciation of recreational drugs. What the hell. He gets his copy in on time, or does mostly, unless another senior member of the acting community takes him up. I can live with that.
I emailed him about the girl, just to tell him that once someone even younger than himself had appreciated his talents.
"Is she," he wrote back a few days later, :the one appearing with Mihailovic at the Madison Centre? If she is, she seems to have gone down rather well. But then your judgments have not always secured the highest degree of concurrence amongst your peers."
This last was a reference to Macken's own renaissance, which had come in the form of a re-released compilation of his own "work" for film and television, and which had been surprisingly well-received by some commentators. Macken in his later years is becoming more and more waspish, in direct correlation of course to the size of the poodles he exercises at Muscle Beach. Success will, with a sad inevitability, go to his head.
I was curious. I found she had a date to appear in London, and I made a point of getting a ticket well in advance. Later, a card also arrived, addressed to the magazine, inviting me to a reception following the performance.
That night, over London, a storm raged, taxis were in short supply and I arrived at the concert hall bedraggled and annoyed. Margaret, my old professor, was there, though some years retired from the college. She was wearing a velvet cloak and had the air of Merlin, standing over the stone from which a sword could not be budged.
"Do you remember…" were her first words. It was then that I knew that I hadn't been totally alone with my thoughts all those years ago.
We sat together, though hardly exchanging a word. There seemed to be a lot at stake here somehow. I wondered if, somewhere in the darkness, the officials of that other college, the one whose offer she had accepted, were sitting in similar anticipation.
The girl — the woman — appeared on the stage before us. The contempt was still there, and so were distinct traces of the breathless arrogance of youth, a little more desperate perhaps. She bowed and I think we both noticed then the substantial scar on her shoulder at the same time.
Margaret and I exchanged glances, as though we were about to be hurled over Niagara Falls in capsules that we had been assured would guarantee our safety, though mistrusting the fundamentals of their design.
The woman took a seat — there was to be no playing from the hip here. The lights dimmed. The performance began.
She was — there was no other word for it — awful.
Notes were snatched, scratched at, attempted in vain. It was like watching a wounded man crawling to safety. Worst of all was that she played Yekholov's Fascinade, the same piece that she had astounded us with all those years before.
There were revelations, but they concerned pain, disappointment, the slipping away of dreams. The score fought back against any possible subjugation. It writhed and leapt beneath her hands, escaping her grasp continually. Technical competence had in some way been achieved, but in such a limited manner that it implied long-term defeat.
Margaret and I said nothing explicit, but we were both of the view that we might have one drink out of politeness, and then disappear into the night. For my part, I made up my mind not to mention the performance, still less to write an honest account for Fugue.
We hovered in a corner making small talk. Margaret pointed out the politician, the woman's divorced husband, who must have been in the audience. He must have brought along a good part of it. He was smiling broadly, looking now in his evening clothes as though about to audition for the part of Satan in some low-budget picture.
A worse horror followed. The woman saw and recognised Margaret and I. Grabbing a tray from a waiter she approached us, a female Stalin about to despatch more dissidents to the Gulags.
She poured lavish drinks for us. The waiter removed the débris.
"I've often thought about that day," she said, the pleasantries over. "I'm pretty much of the opinion that you witnessed my finest musical moment."
We were both terrified that she would ask us what we thought of that evening's performance, but she seemed distracted. She looked around.
"That scar…" I asked quickly, hoping to deflect her.
"Oh that," she said, almost gasping for breath, "Terry gave me that. Didn't you, Terry?" She seized the arm of the politician who was at that moment standing behind her, his laugh like a horse.
"Steady on old girl," he said as he was spun around, his glass spilling.
"We used to fight like cat and dog, didn't we, Terry? It was only a matter of time before someone got hurt." She was almost hissing now.
The politician blinked. "It was no one's fault really. We just didn't get on, as man and wife that is. Everything fine now as you can see." He smiled emptily at her. She smiled back and for the first time, those blue eyes glinted like sapphires in a jewellery shop. I thought then that I wouldn't have exchanged places with this man for any amount of power or position.
She said, "He pushed me, you see, and I fell. I had it coming. I think I was trying to stick him with a kitchen knife at the time. I came down on my back and crushed the violin. The one that I played when I came to audition for you. The one my grandfather escaped with from Poland."
"Insurance paid up though," Terry the politician said weakly.
The woman ignored him completely. Her attention seemed to soar into a different realm, one where Terry would never tread.
"It severed a tendon, somewhere here," she said, feeling her shoulder with a long, white hand. "The surgeon always said I might have difficulty playing in later life."
"But no trouble at the moment," Terry said once more. "Fabulous show tonight," he said with spectacular insincerity. A few moments later, having nodded to us, he wandered off, waving extravagant greetings to someone.
The woman was looking at the ceiling, where angels were disporting themselves and middle-aged men were worshipping something against a brightly lit sky.
"If I could only move this hand like I used to." She flexed the fingers of her left hand, and smiled, a kind of upside down smile, as though to intimate that she had only a few regrets, but that each one was about the size of the solar system.
"Well…" I said, not knowing what to say.
Margaret, with incredible bravery, began, "It's not solely the technical aspects…" but then under that daunting gaze, came to a halt.
I said, "I think we'd better…" finishing my drink.
"Yes," said Margaret, quickly. "It's been so nice."
The woman wasn't listening.
"I fought him like a god fighting sin. Like Jesus would have fought Judas if he'd had the balls. He could have changed things once. If he really believed in it." She drank back the champagne.
"I was the world. He was the devil. He took everything from me, and he's still taking, even now." We heard his laugh across the room. "I am going to find a place to bury us both. So deep that even that cackle will not emerge."
Her face was white. She looked gaunt, haggard, but a magnificence of purpose that I had only seen once before somehow shone through.
"Ladies and gentlemen…" came a voice. Margaret and I slipped out while the promoter was speaking.