Last night, I awoke around two o’clock with the violin still playing in my head.
I had slept much of the day before, shivering and feverish with this blasted flu, which had struck me down almost the moment I got here. Don’t understand it; felt fine driving up to The Lodge. Looking forward to a fortnight’s respite among the Brecon hills, alone, just me and my sketchbooks. I’d even begun humming – can you imagine! – a bit of a nonsense tune, really. My butchered version of an old Louis Armstrong track they’d just finished playing on the radio. Thrumming the steering wheel as the winding roads of the Brecon Beacons lifted into view. But at least that had been an exuberant song; the violin, on the other hand … well, that was different. Slow, sombre, incredibly raw. Not music I’d ever listened to before.
It had startled me: the fact I could still hear it in my head, despite having risen from sleep. Only a few seconds lingering on, but enough to present me with the gut-sick sensation of not being alone in the room. I recall sitting bolt upright in the bed, eyes agog, staring at nothing and everything in the darkest corners, convinced the violin was there with me. Then the headache caught up, my shivers returned, and the sound floated away. Silence? Not quite. My ears have not yet attuned to the untimely scratch, scratch, scratching of loose ivy at the window, working intermittently against the pane. But enough to reassure me I had dreamed.
Pulling the bedclothes up to my chin, I laid back heavily into pillows.
God, I felt awful. My head spun as though its contents had been stirred from the inside, and although a flashing heat flushed through limbs and temples, both aching by now, the skin there pinched into a shower of prickling gooseflesh. That was when I’d noticed the time; the luminous numbers on my watch glowing from the low bedside table. Had I really slept that long? A whole day wasted like this?
Closing my eyes again was a relief, throbbing, as they were, around their sockets. Within that tumultuous dream, yesterday’s arrival had replayed itself looming and large, but all its incidences were twisted out of shape, grown into eerie catacombs of the mind. For one thing, the violin – that was real, although it could not have played any music.
I had observed it with some relish as Judith, both friend and now landlady, opened up The Lodge. Recognizing the curves of an old green case, I drew her attention to it immediately. ‘I haven’t played one of those since junior school,’ I’d exclaimed, reaching to retrieve it from an over-cluttered shelf. ‘It’ll be good to get reintroduced.’
‘Oh, you won’t get much out of that old thing, Mort,’ she’d chuckled, amused by my sudden enthusiasm. ‘Not a string on it, I’m afraid.’ Doubtless she was right, but I wanted to see for myself anyway. Perhaps there’s a music shop somewhere in town, I had thought, if it only needs re-stringing. As long as the rest of it is sound.
Pulling the case-handle, guiding it through the various travel books and maps impounding the overall neglect, I was convinced it wouldn’t take much to pick up the basics again, albeit with a little reference. Curiosity about the instrument contained inside was overwhelming; I got clumsy with the final turn, sending three or four of the glossier covers sliding from the shelf in a clatter. With the case free at last and in my hands, the tang of dust and must and aging paper cloyed to the inside of both nostrils.
‘That’s a shame,’ I was saying, referring to the violin. ‘Although not without hope – strings are easily replaced. Is it yours, Jude?’
‘Mine? Heavens, no! Nothing musical about me,’ she’d giggled. She was fussing now with the fallen books and shelves. ‘An old guy – Mr. Trott, I think – from Dulwich, or somewhere like that. Left it here years ago. We tried getting it back to him; I mean, a violin’s a strange sort of thing to leave anywhere, isn’t it? But the poor fellow never did get in touch – no full address neither – so what could we do? I guess he knows where it is if he wants it.’
Curious indeed; but by the time Judith had finished rearranging, I had already grown distracted by the object lying before me, propped upon the arms of a fireside chair. Her voice simply washed as through an open sea. Thankfully, she seemed not to notice, allowing the conversational current to drift among rummaged drawers and kitchen cupboards, slip between token meters and rent arrangements. I should have been listening, but the clasp had grown stiff and unyielding with age. With some effort, it finally clicked.
I could not withhold the gasp that followed.
What had I expected upon opening that lid? Not a Stradivarius for sure, nor any priceless thing too valuable to leave behind, forgotten. A student’s instrument, perhaps? Or a battered object, irreparable, most likely? No; my early experiences, limited as they were, could hardly have bankrolled an expert in me, nor even a speck of superficial knowledge. But suppose for one moment that it had; suppose those early years had sparked a lifelong interest – a sort of violinesque obsession. Even then, imagine this: it could not have prepared me for the instrument I found inside that case.
Indeed, there were no strings. An ornate bridge was packed neatly beneath a velveteen panel, nestling alongside a cube of resin, a cloth and the most unusual bone pitch pipe I’d ever seen, hand-drilled, with emblematic markings. There was a bow, too, strapped into the lid, whose frog-end, also of bone, was similarly engraved with strange motifs: circles mostly, and birdlike impressions reminiscent of bird-trails and pecking. That these items belonged together was indisputable. The same creative influence spread itself over the spruce body in such a characteristic carving-hand that I wondered whether the carver had been Trott himself, working meticulously in wood and bone. Simultaneously beautiful and ugly – I really couldn’t decide which; settled on both at once. The principal design seemed to be that of a bird etched into the body of the violin, an elaborately-worked creature fronting a faraway treeline, from which a haze of smaller scratched markings rose through the mid and upper sections. At first, I failed to identify what they signified; in many respects, they differed from the intricate detail of the other motifs. Closer examination, however, revealed their true intent, for they resolved into a flock – a teeming, animated, heaving sky – of the most finely carved creatures I have ever seen.
I was enthralled. Nowhere could I find a maker’s mark, leading me to conclude that the violin itself was probably handmade. Baffling and intriguing! How could anyone forget an object this unique? Surely, you would conquer the absolute to retrieve it?
‘Wonderful,’ came a voice, close to my ear.
I turned, startled, expecting Judith behind me. But the only thing meeting my astonishment was the unoccupied space of the room.
Judith was still in the kitchen. I could hear her checking things over.
‘Its end of season, of course,’ she was saying. ‘So if you want to stay a little longer, there’ll be no problem with that. Just let us know. We don’t start letting again until March anyway.’
I could see her through the doorway, crouched in front of a meter. The button beeped as she pressed it, noted the digits down on a scrap of paper. Rocking on her feet, a click from both knees, she closed the cupboard door.
‘Should be peaceful enough here to help get your thoughts together – forget things for a bit – you know, until you’ve worked out what you’re doing next.’ She was referring to Jill, my soon-to-be ex-wife and the ultimate cause of my being here. ‘In fact, might be a tad too quiet, perhaps? Wouldn’t be surprised. Oh, and you might want to keep your eye on the weather – before the bad stuff comes in, you know?’
Goodness knows how shocking I must have appeared, for it stopped her mid-step as she approached the door. ‘Are you sure you’ll be alright up here?’
‘Yes; yes, I expect so,’ I replied, a little more confidently than I actually felt. Really, I must get a grip! ‘Thought I’d heard something, that’s all. Mind playing tricks, and all that.’
‘Be careful,’ she smiled. ‘You never know where that’ll take you. Lonely places, wild imaginations – they don’t really mix. Our number’s by the phone if you need anything.’
I’d smiled back, sheepishly.
Call me ungrateful, but I rather envied Jude and her husband just then. It passed soon enough, but in that one small moment I believe I would have given anything to be more like them, living their lives, which by comparison seemed full and rich. Mine is such a mess. One minute fortunate, the next three, devastation. Or perhaps that’s just my perception; you never quite get used to it …
Uh, oh; here’s one of those problems right now – one of those ‘idiosyncrasies’ Jill had found fault with: the shifting moods. The ‘up-ness’ and ‘down-ness’ of my nature, not to mention all that side-swinging in between. Can’t say I’d really noticed it before, not until she’d made them a cause for leaving. My moods had not appeared to me any more erratic than anyone else’s, but now, each emotional twist and turn checks me. Pulls me sharp. Mustn’t feel anymore.
But I’m straying.
No. I won’t start self-loathing because of this. My ‘moods’ are Jill’s excuse; nothing more. So what if I’m jealous of Jude and Mike? A momentary spike – who could blame me? Wasn’t this only natural, given the circumstances? Jude, her rumbustious self, her practicality. The type of person usually described as ‘jolly’ – yes, ‘jolly’ was the word that summed her entirely; it defined her. Good old Jude!
Perhaps it was Mike I envied, after all.
Soon after she’d left, I started feeling dreadful, and by lunchtime the illness had fully taken hold. The first flu symptoms gripped inside my bones, coursing through marrow, throbbing legs, throbbing arms. Fatigue rolled through my body in a wave. Sweating. I had to lie down.
Thankfully, the master bedroom was airy enough – fresh white cotton bedclothes, plump and inviting. The stairs leading up had exhausted me. Indeed, there was a point – where the staircase turns a blind ninety degrees to the right – at which I’d feared my legs would fail before reaching the last step. I could easily have slumped where I was, sunk into a deep-piled red carpet. But I did not. I made it to the bedroom door, slung it ajar, and flopped myself down on the bedstead. It bounced lightly beneath my weight, soft, soothing, a cradle.
Asleep in moments.
Rarely do I recall dreams; there are normally enough dramas in my wakeful life without dealing with those of my subconscious. So I reason. But on this occasion, I can only suppose a rising fever contributed considerably, for not only did I dream a dream of immense peculiarity, but its effects remain vivid with me now.
For one thing, the stairs: they moved. Not smooth like an escalator, but rising sharply, irregularly, in front of me, before dropping away into a void. Giddy, alarmingly unsteady, I’d encountered the turn in the stairs having already lost all sense of equilibrium. An unfathomable sensation, emanating from the rooted nerve-ends of an indulged gut-instinct, alerts me towards something shifting, something uncertain lying ahead. It trips softly upon the carpeted edge of the next three steps – I can feel its approach. A shiver. An impending dread. A taste of lemon oil and beeswax. A spilling light slipping towards me, stopping at the bareness of my feet. And there, in the corner of the turn in the stairs, a shadow unrecognizable as my own.
I haven’t moved. I cannot move, yet it flinches even as my stomach recoils. And that was when I heard it – Trott’s violin; largo, slow, melancholic.
The sound drifted from the landing – of this, I was sure, but how did it get there? Even cocooned within my enveloping dream-state, there was little doubt where I’d left the violin: replaced, on the same shelf upon which it was first found. And who was playing? My mind struggled to make sense of it all, the sound permeating, inhabiting the space on the stairs, with the weight and presence of a second person, unseen. Uninvited. My skin, clammy yet cold, ever thickening through string vibrations. But there were no strings; had I reminded myself about that? I don’t know, for it was at that point, bogged in confusion and immobile, I suddenly jolted awake.
Look at me, freaked by a dream, hah! Completely ridiculous, isn’t it? Last night was terrible; I hope not to repeat it, but it is strange, is it not, how the mind broods upon the most innocuous of things, ravelling them up into a nightmare? It’s my sickness, of course it is. I’m still running a temperature this morning, albeit slighter than I fear it was last night. An uneasy feeling, nonetheless; it disturbs me. Thank goodness I had changed my mind and brought the laptop with me. Now I feel compelled to write it all down – dispel the dream upon the digital page – and largely let it go. Think about something else for a while.
Jill, if you’re reading this (don’t know why I think you would), please be aware: this is not another ‘guilt trip’.
Nor any other of my ‘idiosyncrasies’.
To Be Continued …
Copyright © 2015 Donna Rae Jones. All rights reserved.
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