On the Periphery
The leaves above are limpid yellow and orange, beech and chestnut distilling the autumn sun into music: golden, rippling arpeggios. In my mind’s ear, my violin dreams a fantasia of light in a major key. Yet when I try to give the notes some meaning, to shape them into emotions, they refuse to acknowledge me. I must live in this moment, revel in this beauty, make my Taoist way that knows no forward and no back, but it is no use. Now in nature I find only cold indifference. The beauty is not mine. It is no one’s. It has no humanity.
Ahead in a clearing a man is standing stock still, gazing into the middle distance. “Bass-ett!” I call out. Somehow it does for hello.
“Oh, sorry, I didn’t hear you,” he says, turning slowly. A slight figure with spiky blond hair, he looks like he might fold flat for storage. I can see him taking in the vivid check on my duffle coat.
“Hi, have you seen a black dog run through here?” I ask.
“No, no I don’t think so.”
“The wood can be enchanting on a day like today, I know.”
“Enchanting! Yeah, I guess so.” He smiles and scratches his neck. I’m an amusement, it would seem. Well, that’s fine. Or he’s embarrassed.
“Do you come here often?” I enjoy clichés.
“I’ve been here once before… A long time ago now.” There’s a glimmer of concern on his face.
“I don’t suppose you could help me look for my dog? He’s been gone a while and I’m getting worried.”
“Okay, yeah, sure.”
We try to walk abreast, but the path narrows, hemmed in by bracken, and we move to an awkward single file. Every so often he stops, looking around, though with no sense of expectation, more a bewildered, distracted air. I wonder if I’ve seen him before.
“So what brings you here?” I ask.
“Just the trees – and the weather.” He stops. “It’s good to soak it all in.” Birch leaves are tumbling across the path like gentle piccolo trills.
“You enjoy being outside?”
“Too right.” He restrains a smile, before blurting out, “What do you do?”
“I’m a – I was a musician.”
“How did you guess! Yes, classical. On a November day like this, with the sunshine and cold wind, I think of Sibelius.” This is probably far too specific for him. He’s giving me a wary look, then grins sadly.
“I know the symphonies well. The Fourth is my favourite,” he says, brightening as I smile. “But we’re not in that land now. We’re in West Sussex!”
“Emotionally?” He stares.
I stand still. Christ, the Fourth Symphony is a wasteland. The wasteland. Only the beauty pulls you through.
“Maybe! Can I give you a name?”
“Duncan.” He’s evaluating me, I can see it.
“Claire. So what is it that you do? For a living?” He doesn’t strike me as a classical type. He shrugs, his shoulders mobile.
“Have you ever done anything you did not expect yourself to do, Claire?” It’s clear that he doesn’t mean work wise. I’m still thinking of the Fourth.
“I once sat on Beachy Head for eight hours.” His eyes gleam with understanding, and shock. “It was foggy, I got hypothermia. Then I remembered that Bassett hadn’t had his dinner.” I turn onto a narrow path leading uphill, flanked by gorse bushes. “And what about you? Doing something unexpected? You must have a reason for asking?”
“Well, I suppose once… I mean…” I hold back a gorse branch for him, and then let it go at the perfect moment. It catches him on the cheek.
“Sorry, I didn’t expect to do that!” I glance at him coyly. “Come on, you can’t ask that sort of question and then wimp out.” Perhaps my frankness has stymied him. He brushes a spot of blood from his cheek and pauses, leaning into the slope.
“I was inside, okay? I was in prison. I didn’t expect to do that. I could see a wood a bit like this from the prison yard, behind the fences, the guards, and the razor wire. I only got out – a few weeks back.”
“Oh. I’m sorry to hear that.” I can feel myself retreating to crushing formality, but that’s not what I want. My hand jumps to his shoulder, surprising us both. It’s a tenuous bridge. “What did you – why were you in prison?” My fingers itch to recoil as though igniting a gas burner. He fixes his eye.
“Okay, so I got your music. I listened to Radio 3 a lot, in my cell. But really, Claire, that’s probably as far as it goes.” He scrabbles in his pocket and finds some chewing gum.
“When I found you, you were communing with the trees. Staring right into the middle of the middle class middle distance. And I’ve already told you rather a lot about myself –”
“Have you? So you were suicidal once, I take it. I’m sorry, but so bloody what.”
“No, never.” Duncan looks around, remembering our search.
“I’m sorry, too many questions.” I pause. “I used to be a violinist. A first violin, in the London Symphony Orchestra.” There’s a raise of the eyebrow. “I’ve played under Ashkenazy, Salonen, and Haitink. I’ve toured in the US, Japan, and all over Europe. But, I came off my motorbike. Which broke my right arm. Either that caused the nerve damage, or the vast amount of practice which I did after the accident, when I was trying to get back into form. Anyhow, the nerves in my arm are irretrievably screwed, and I can’t play my violin any more.”
“Shit. That’s harsh. I –”
“Yes, yes it is!” I blurt. “And it wasn’t just my arm. I took a bad knock to the head, and had amnesia, after the crash.” In fact there are still bits of my memory from the time before that have gone walkabout. Duncan grins, fox-like.
“You broke your arm, but it became a kind of fracture in your life. I know what that’s like, to have the before and the afterwards, and that sense of not being whole.”
“Sometimes I feel that part of me continued on, as intended, and I’m a sort of husk that got left behind,” I say. We stop, and turn to face each other. “You understand, don’t you?”
I can see the uncertainty in his cold grey eyes, unsure whether to let me further in, or withdraw. He runs a finger along the stubble on his jaw, nods, and squeezes my hand. We share the emptiness of time unspent. I sense it.
“Do you believe in fate?” he says. But I laugh uproariously, somehow I need to. He looks punctured, and I wish I hadn’t. We pause.
“So what did you do, Duncan? To be in prison?”
“I ran a VAT scam on the taxman. In the game we call it VAT carousel fraud.”
“And you were in a secure prison, for fraud?” Defrauding the taxman, it could be worse. He sighs.
“I was only in a secure place for a bit. Then I got moved.”
His eyes shrink away from me, and his jaw twitches. Clouds are appearing, and it’s chilly in the wind.
“And how do you feel about it, now? Are you sorry?”
“I spent seven years in prison, of course I’m sorry.”
The wind whispers in the trees like seawater rippling over shingle. Seven years is a long time. I resume the search, glancing back at him, wondering.
The sun has sunk a little lower before he calls out, “Over here!” He’s standing by a log pile. Running forward, I see Bassett’s hind legs scrabbling pathetically from under the stack. Duncan shifts a log a couple of inches and Bassett emerges, lolloping towards me.
“I think he’s alright,” says Duncan. “You’re a happy camper, aren’t you?” He squats down and ruffles Bassett’s hair. I’m weak with relief. As Duncan stands I hug him and, spontaneously, we kiss, though it’s more of a bump than a smooch. I recoil and then we move together. He is passionate at first, then restrained, almost playful, a glint of irony or self-censure in his eye. It’s only when I pull away that I notice how hard he’s gripping my arm.
“How did you cope?” I say uncertainly as we stumble up the far slope.
“You mean in prison? Music. Self-respect. I studied, I read. I promised myself everything for the future. Perhaps I still do.”
“Hey, I’m the fantasist here! Animist spirits, paganism, I wanted to believe that stuff. And well, I still have my violin, gathering dust on the living room sideboard…”
“And it’s never going to get any better? The injury, I mean?”
“Nope, the nerve damage is here to stay. It’s a question of managing it for the long term now, stopping it from getting worse. I can’t play.”
We are nearing the top of the hill, walking due west. Straw-beamed sunlight splits the air above us. And the trees below are warm and gorgeous, a stand of larch ablaze like the promise of a log fire, while birch tops susurrate in the breeze. And somehow I am in the centre of the symphony, as though Mahler has arranged the world for me and given me his conductor’s baton. I’ve discovered again how meeting someone, even briefly, can lift the frosted glass of sadness.
Duncan stops and takes a deep breath. “You know the old stone bridge over the Rother? The one by the Two Bridges pub? Meet you there, ten o’clock on Saturday morning. And bring your violin,” he says, backing away. “And Claire, it’s been amazing, meeting you here today. That’s what I meant, about fate.”
“Bye!” I wave, but he’s already striding away from me. I feel as wobbly and insubstantial as a jellyfish.
How much water has passed under this bridge since I met Duncan three days ago? I don’t know. Looking below me, my eyes test the river for some glimpse of depth, but find only turbid brown. Duncan and I have a connection, that I do know, but it could be no more than a strand in a rope. I hear footsteps crunching on last night’s snow – it’s him. I smile, and raise my violin case, despite my nervousness as to why I’ve brought it here. He grins broadly. Somehow it doesn’t suit him. He’s smartly dressed, in a dark suit and open necked shirt.
“I’m glad you came,” he says. “And you’ve got your violin, too. Good.” He opens his arms to embrace me, and – it’s awkward, at least at first. “When I got home, the other day, I was made up about meeting you.” He reaches down into a leather holdall, and pulls out a photo of a couple. It’s a girl I don’t know and Duncan, only with dark hair in curtains. “She… left me after the trial. It was all very sad. And these –” he reaches into a coat pocket, smiling ruefully, “are the keys to our old flat. Now, open the violin case. Do it.”
“It’s a big part of my past. It’s who I was!”
“Exactly. Who you were. Can you go back? However much you wish it, can you return to that? No.”
Somehow destroying my violin is much more risky than jumping into bed with a stranger. I don’t know if I can find the impulse. But I unlock the clips, open the lid, and tenderly lift the instrument.
“You won’t be free until you let it go, you know that,” he whispers in my ear.
“Okay.” I nod firmly.
“You have to do this.”
“Alright!” I hold my violin over the parapet.
“On three, then? Together! One, two, three!”
With surprising force I jettison my hollow treasure. A tumbling silver frame follows it, yet before either hits the water, there is a soft, plaintive scream, and I collapse into a ball. Sobbing and curled in the foetal position, my eyes bore into the sandstone blocks of the bridge. I’m watching myself and Duncan from above, and I don’t feel it when he lifts me and presses my head onto his shoulder. His voice is firm and clear.
“Unless you start something new, you’ll be eking out the years, looking back, and you’ll never be whole again. We have to let go, and start afresh.” I nod and snivel. I daren’t look towards the river. Slowly, he walks me away, leaving the empty violin case beckoning to the sky like a coffin.
We sit at an outside pub table, brushing snow off the cold damp slats. Duncan puts his arm around me, and, uncertainly, I let him.
“I’ve just thrown half my life away!” I sob. Yet as the shock lessens, there is a cauterised, clean feeling.
“You don’t remember me, do you?” says Duncan.
“What do you mean?”
“I was at the Royal College of Music, a year above you. I’m a cellist.”
“Oh!” I put my hand over my mouth. I do recognise him. His hair was black then, and much longer. “You asked me on a date once,” I gasp. “But I didn’t really know you.”
He shrugs. “You were one of the best violinists in your year. I remember watching you in Saint-Saens’ No. 2: you had seamless line. But also energy, and sparkle.”
“It’s true, I did… So you were waiting for me, weren’t you? In the wood? You must have followed me!”
“Did you know about my amnesia? Were you taking advantage – that I might not remember you?”
“No, seriously, that would be twisted.”
“And all that stuff about fraud, and prison?”
“At the RCM, after you turned me down, well I followed you a bit back then. Nothing sinister – I mean Berlioz used to follow Harriet Smithson, right?”
“Yes, and look how that ended!” As jokes go it’s pretty grim. I stand and start to walk. So does he.
“After those times – when I couldn’t get you out of my head – I met someone, a pianist.”
“The girl in the photo?”
“Yeah. Anyhow, she was… She used to hit me.” He has a hangdog, broken look.
“Not the other way around?”
“No, really. There are cigarette burns on my back – you’ll see them – that was her.” Or it could have been an irritable cellmate. I look away. The snowy pines are icing sugar perfect, their tops catching the yellow light. “And, like I told you – I have changed!” he says.
“So what happened?” Not fraud. He’s too passionate. And too mad.
“We used to argue. We’d play sonatas together, and sometimes we’d just lose it. It got abusive.”
“Oh dear, should have stuck to Bach, eh?”
“Look… It was difficult, we both found it difficult being in a relationship with another musician. Another performing musician. Playing together, it screwed us up. We both had to have our own view winning. We’d sabotage each other, then stop, say sorry, and hate it, silently.”
“Okay, this is by far the worst thing that has ever happened to me.” He catches my eye, then stares at the icy slush on his shoes. “We were arguing – she was drunk, she hit me, I slapped her, and she fell down some steps. Some stone steps. And broke her neck. It was an accident. But there were witnesses who thought they had seen it all, and… I got convicted of manslaughter.”
“You killed her?” Oh my god. “Are you sorry?”
“What can I say that doesn’t sound inadequate? Of course I’m sorry!”
“Because your career was over, presumably!”
“Don’t you think I’ve been punished enough? It was an accident.”
“Why did you get me to throw my violin off the bridge? It was so it couldn’t happen again, wasn’t it?”
“No, I was trying to help you! Really. And, I mean, I just wanted to be sure.”
“Bastard! You bloody, bloody bastard!” My arms are stiff with fury. “Oh, you like the admiration, but there’s only space for one ego, is that it?” I’d strike him if it weren’t for what I’ve just heard. I throw my arms back and scream at him, then turn to run, which way, any way, up a gravel track, uphill.
“Claire, please!” he calls, his voice distant and broken, but I run on. Trees are either side of me, lines of pines in gloomy avenues. My boots slip on the snow. Out of breath, I turn and see Duncan walking steadily after me, hands stuffed in his pockets, his chin drawn to his chest, all shoulders and elbows. He’s a silhouette, an approaching shadow.
“I love you, Claire.” He speaks quietly, not daring eye contact.
“How can you? Do you even know me? Am I not someone else in your imagination?” If he was unhinged before, maybe prison has made him worse. His smile is so tortured that I shudder. Softly, he sings the opening solo of Bruch’s first violin Concerto, up to the point where the orchestra crashes in. How did he guess? Maybe he saw me performing it.
“It’s one of my favourite pieces, too,” he says. “This could be a beautiful beginning, Claire. We will always have music. And after what happened to you, and to me, we are two broken halves.” I can’t look at him.
“And how could I ever trust you?”
“Please, hear me play. Come to a rehearsal room in town. Listen to me play and make any judgment you want. Will you do that for me, at least?”
There is no sound but the pine trees combing the freezing wind. After a brief eternity in which I hang in the ether, the warble of a robin drops down the hill like a skein of silver bubbles.
“I suppose I could,” I say, evenly.