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An Equal Music (Vikram Seth)


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  1.1

The branches are bare, the sky tonight a milky violet. It is not quiet here, but it is peaceful. The wind ruffles the black water towards me.

There is no one about. The birds are still. The traffic slashes through Hyde Park. It comes to my ears as white noise.

I test the bench but do not sit down. As yesterday, as the day before, I stand until I have lost my thoughts. I look at the water of the Serpentine.


Yesterday as I walked back across the park I paused at a fork in the footpath. I had the sense that someone had paused behind me. I walked on. The sound of footsteps followed along the gravel. They were unhurried; they appeared to keep pace with me. Then they suddenly made up their mind, speeded up, and overtook me. They belonged to a man in a thick black overcoat, quite tall--about my height--a young man from his gait and attitude, though I did not see his face. His sense of hurry was now evident. After a while, unwilling so soon to cross the blinding Bayswater Road, I paused again, this time by the bridle path. Now I heard the faint sound of hooves. This time, however, they were not embodied. I looked to left, to right. There was nothing.


As I approach Archangel Court I am conscious of being watched. I enter the hallway. There are flowers here, a concoction of gerberas and general foliage. A camera surveys the hall. A watched building is a secure building, a secure building a happy one.

A few days ago I was told I was happy by the young woman behind the counter at Etienne's. I ordered seven croissants. As she gave me my change she said: "You are a happy man."

I stared at her with such incredulity that she looked down.

"You're always humming," she said in a much quieter voice, feeling perhaps that she had to explain.

"It's my work," I said, ashamed of my bitterness. Another customer entered the shop, and I left.

As I put my week's croissants--all except one--in the freezer, I noticed I was humming the same half-tuneless tune of one of Schubert's last songs:

I see a man who stares upwards
And wrings his hands from the force of his pain.
I shudder when I see his face.
The moon reveals myself to me.


I put the water on for coffee, and look out of the window. From the eighth floor I can see as far as St Paul's, Croydon, Highgate. I can look across the brown-branched park to spires and towers and chimneys beyond. London unsettles me--even from such a height there is no clear countryside to view.

But it is not Vienna. It is not Venice. It is not, for that matter, my hometown in the North, in clear reach of the moors.


It wasn't my work, though, that made me hum that song. I have not played Schubert for more than a month. My violin misses him more than I do. I tune it, and we enter my soundproof cell. No light, no sound comes in from the world. Electrons along copper, horsehair across acrylic create my impressions of sense.

I will play nothing of what we have played in our quartet, nothing that reminds me of my recent music-making with any human being. I will play his songs.

The Tononi seems to purr at the suggestion. Something happy, something happy, surely:

In a clear brook
With joyful haste
The whimsical trout
Shot past me like an arrow.


I play the line of the song, I play the leaps and plunges of the right hand of the piano, I am the trout, the angler, the brook, the observer. I sing the words, bobbing my constricted chin. The Tononi does not object; it resounds. I play it in B, in A, in E flat. Schubert does not object. I am not transposing his string quartets.

Where a piano note is too low for the violin, it leaps into a higher octave. As it is, it is playing the songline an octave above its script. Now, if it were a viola . . . but it has been years since I played the viola.

The last time was when I was a student in Vienna ten years ago. I return there again and again and think: was I in error? Was I unseeing? Where was the balance of pain between the two of us? What I lost there I have never come near to retrieving.

What happened to me so many years ago? Love or no love, I could not continue in that city. I stumbled, my mind jammed, I felt the pressure of every breath. I told her I was going, and went. For two months I could do nothing, not even write to her. I came to London. The smog dispersed but too late. Where are you now, Julia, and am I not forgiven?


1.2

Virginie will not practice, yet demands these lessons. I have worse students--more cavalier, that is--but none so frustrating.

I walk across the park to her flat. It is over-heated and there is a great deal of pink. This used not to unnerve me. Now when I step into the bathroom I recoil.

Pink bath, pink basin, pink toilet, pink bidet, pink tiles, pink wallpaper, pink rug. Brushes, soap, toothbrush, silk flowers, toilet paper: all pink. Even the little foot-operated waste-bin is pale pink. I know this little waste-bin well. Every time I sleep here I wonder what I am doing with my time and hers. She is fifteen years younger than I am. She is not the woman with whom I want to share my life. But, having begun, what we have continues. She wants it to, and I go along with it, through lust and loneliness, I suppose; and laziness, and lack of focus.

Our lessons are a clear space. Today it is a partita by Bach: the E major. I ask her to play it all the way through, but after the Gavotte I tell her to stop.

"Don't you want to know how it ends?" she asks cheerfully.

"You haven't practiced much."

She achieves an expression of guilt.

"Go back to the beginning," I suggest.

"Of the Gavotte?"

"Of the Prelude."

"You mean bar seventeen? I know, I know, I should use always my wrist for the E string."

"I mean bar one."

Virginie looks sulky. She sets her bow down on a pale pink silk cushion.

"Virginia, it's not that you can't do it, it's just that you aren't doing it."

"Doing what?"

"Thinking about the music. Sing the first phrase, just sing it."

She picks up the bow.

"I meant, with your voice."

Virginie sighs. In tune, and with exactitude, she goes: "Mi-re-mi si sol si mi-fa-mi-re-mi . . .

"Can't you ever sing without those nonsense syllables?"

"That's how I was taught." Her eyes flash.

Virginie comes from Nyons, about which I know nothing other than that it is somewhere near Avignon. She asked me twice to go there with her, then stopped asking.

"Virginia, it's not just one damn note after another. That second mi-re-mi should carry some memory of the first. Like this." I pick up my fiddle and demonstrate. "Or like this. Or in some way of your own."

She plays it again, and plays it well, and goes on. I close my eyes. A huge bowl of pot-pourri assails my senses. It is getting dark. Winter is upon us. How young she is, how little she works. She is only twenty-two. My mind wanders to another city, to the memory of another woman, who was as young then.

"Should I go on?"

"Yes."

I tell Virginie to keep her wrist free, to watch her intonation here, to mind her dynamics there, to keep her détaché even--but she knows all this. Next week there will be some progress, very little. She is talented, yet she will not apply herself. Though she is supposedly a full-time student, music for her is only one of many things. She is anxious about the college competition for which she will perform this partita. She is thinking of selling her Miremont, and getting her father--who supports her unstudentlike standard of living--to buy her something early and Italian. She has a grand circle of acquaintance here, scores of friends from all over France who descend on her in every season, vast linked clans of relatives, and three ex-boyfriends with whom she is on good terms. She and I have been together for more than a year now.

As for the one I remember, I see her with her eyes closed, playing Bach to herself: an English suite. Gently her fingers travel among the keys. Perhaps I move too suddenly. The beloved eyes turn towards me. There are so many beings here, occupied, pre-occupied. Let me believe that she breathes, that she still exists, somewhere on this chance sphere.


1.3

The Maggiore Quartet is gathering for a rehearsal at our standard venue, Helen's attractive little two-storey mews house.

Helen is preparing coffee. Only she and I are here. The afternoon sunlight slants in. A woman's velvety voice sings Cole Porter. Four dark blue armless chairs are arranged in an arc beneath a minimalist pine bookshelf. A viola case and a couple of music stands rest in the corner of the open-plan kitchen-living-dining room.

"One? Two?" asks Helen. "I keep forgetting. I wonder why. It's not the sort of thing one forgets when one is, well, used to someone's coffee habits. But you don't have a habit with sugar, do you? Sometimes you don't have any at all. Oh, I met someone yesterday who was asking after you. Nicholas Spare. Such an awful man, but the more waspish he gets the more they read him. Get him to review us, Michael. He has a crush on you, I'm sure he does. He frowns whenever I mention you."

"Thanks, Helen. That's all I need."

"So do I, of course."

"No crushes on colleagues."

"You're not all that gorgeous."

"What's new on the gardening front?"

"It's November, Michael," says Helen. "Besides, I'm off gardening. Here's your coffee. What do you think of my hair?"

Helen has red hair, and her hairstyle changes quarterly. Today it is ringleted with careless care. I nod approval and concentrate on my coffee.

The doorbell rings. It is Piers, her elder brother, our first violinist.

He enters, ducking his head slightly. He kisses his sister--who is only a couple of inches shorter--says hello to me, takes off his elegant-shabby greatcoat, gets out his violin and mutters, "Could you turn that off? I'm trying to tune up."

"Oh, just till the end of this track," says Helen.

Piers turns the player off himself . Helen says nothing. Piers is used to getting his way.

"Where the fuck is Billy?" he asks. "He's always late for rehearsal. Has he called?"

Helen shakes her head. "That's what happens, I suppose, if you live in Loughton or Leyton or wherever."

"Leytonstone," I say.

"Of course," says Helen, feigning enlightenment. London for her means Zone 1. All of us except Billy live quite centrally, in or near Bayswater, within walking distance of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, though in very different conditions. Piers is quite often irritable, even resentful, for a few minutes after arriving at Helen's. He lives in a basement studio.

After a while Helen quietly asks him how he enjoyed last night. Piers went to listen to the Steif Quartet, whom he has admired for many years, play an all-Beethoven concert.

"Oh, OK," grumbles Piers. "But you can never tell with the Steif. Last night they were going in heavily for beauty of tone--pretty narcissistic. And I'm beginning to dislike the first violinist's face: it looks more and more pinched every year. And after they finished playing the Grosse Fuge, they leapt up as if they had just killed a lion. Of course the audience went mad . . . Has Erica called?"

"No . . . So you didn't like the concert."

"I didn't say that," says Piers. "Where is bloody Billy? We should fine him a chocolate biscuit for every minute he's late." Having tuned up, he plays a rapid figure in pizzicato quartertones.

"What was that?" asks Helen, almost spilling her coffee. "No, no, no, don't play it again."

"An attempt at composition à la Billy."

"That's not fair," says Helen.

Piers smiles a sort of left-handed smile. "Billy's only a fledgling. One day twenty years from now, he'll grow into the full monster, write something gratingly awful for Covent Garden--if it's still there--and wake up as Sir William Cutler."

Helen laughs, then pulls herself up. "Now, now, no talking behind each other's backs," she says.

"I'm a bit worried," continues Piers. "Billy's been talking far too much about what he's working on." He turns to me for a reaction.

"Has he actually suggested we play something he's written?" I ask.

"No. Not actually. Not yet. It's just a pricking of my thumbs."

"Why don't we wait and see if he does?" I suggest.

"I'm not for it," says Helen slowly. "It would be dreadful if we didn't like it--I mean if it really sounded like your effusion."

Piers smiles again, not very pleasantly.

"Well, I don't see the harm in reading it through once," I say.

"What if some of us like it and some don't?" asks Helen. "A quartet is a quartet. This could lead to all sorts of tensions. But surely it would be worse if Billy's grumpy the whole time. So there it is."

"Helenic logic," says Piers.

"But I like Billy--" begins Helen.

"So do we all," Piers interrupts. "We all love each other, that goes without saying. But in this matter, the three of us should think out our position--our joint position--clearly, before Billy presents us with a fourth Razoumovsky."

Before we can speak further, Billy arrives. He lugs his cello in exhaustedly, apologises, looks cheerful when he sees the chocolate biscuits that Helen knows are his favourites, gobbles down a few, receives his coffee gratefully, apologises again, and begins tuning.

"Lydia took the car--dentist. Mad rush--almost forgot the music for the Brahms. Central line--terrible." Sweat shines on his forehead and he is breathing heavily. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'll never be late again. Never ever."

"Have another biscuit, Billy," says Helen affectionately.

"Get a mobile phone, Billy," says Piers in a lazy-peremptory prefect-like tone.

"Why?" asks Billy. "Why should I? Why should I get a mobile phone? I'm not a pimp or a plumber."

Piers shakes his head and lets it go. Billy is far too fat, and always will be. He will always be distracted by family and money worries, car insurance and composition. For all our frustration and rebuke, he will never be on time. But the moment his bow comes down on the strings he is transfigured. He is a wonderful cellist, light and profound: the base of our harmony, the rock on which we rest.

 
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Excerpted from An Equal Music by Vikram Seth. Copyright © 1998 by Vikram Seth. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.