The Dark Waters
Now he no longer played he did not know what to do with himself.
He climbed the stairs slowly, as he did everything these days, partly because it helped to pass the time and partly because the slightest exertion made him lose his breath.
In the big low-ceilinged room at the top, whose virtues they had so recently discovered, and which was now used as an ironing room, a sewing room and a place where you took your coffee after dinner and gazed over the lake at the setting sun, he pulled his accustomed chair to the window and lowered himself into it with a sigh.
When Lotte was there with him it was difficult. She had accepted the fact that he had put away his instrument for good the day he retired, but he felt nonetheless that in some obscure way she blamed him for this. Or perhaps it was only that he blamed himself. He did not know why he had acted as he had, except that he knew he had no alternative. He who all his life had been groomed to hold and play the violin, for whom everything had been sacrificed to enable him to go on playing, who had lived only – no, not only, women too had been important to him, but predominantly – in order to play, had ceased abruptly, from one day to the next, to do so. Was it himself he was punishing, for having enslaved himself to the instrument all his life? Or fate, which had given him the fatal gift? Well, hardly fatal, quite the opposite in fact, for without it he would have gone the way of his parents, into the ovens, instead of which he found himself, at the age of fourteen, thanks to a generous benefactor, on the other side of the ocean.
They had discovered the attic room almost by chance. When they had first bought the holiday flat in the town by the lake they had hardly given the attic a thought, it had seemed so low-ceilinged and stuffy. They had used it as an extra store-room, piling up there the boxes of old theatre programmes and scratched LPs, of old photographs, newspaper cuttings and letters which they had both accumulated in the course of their busy lives. But one day, going up to look for something just as the sun was setting, he was struck by the splendour of the view, so much better than that from the rooms below, obscured as this was by houses and trees, and had sat down to watch until the sun disappeared behind the mountains of Switzerland across the lake. Now, whenever Lotte was here with him they would take their coffee up there after the evening meal and, when she was in Karlsruhe, working, he would go up there at all hours of the day, and sit, and look, and let his mind wander.
He had not known he would stop. After all, even when he had reached the statutory age and was forced to retire from the orchestra, he could have carried on with the quartet. As a soloist even. Or giving lessons. His own teachers, in Vienna and Buenos Aires, had been old men, much older – at least so it had seemed to him at the time – than he was now. They still lived for their art, they were still filled with the passionate need to pass on what they themselves had learned from their own teachers, But there were others, fewer, it is true, but he had known them, who had, like him, given their lives to their instrument and then, one day, abruptly stopped.
He had always made his decisions like that, abruptly, finally. Knew that whether they were right or wrong they had to be taken, no matter what. That had been the case when he had left Vienna with his violin and suitcase at fourteen, bound for the New World. That had been the case when, many years later, he left Argentina, which had been so good to him, and accepted the job in England, he thought, looking out at the lake shimmering now in a silvery light, though the sky above it was quite dark. And that had been the case when he put his violin away in its protective shell and closed the lid on it for ever.
Across the lake, in that other country where she was dying, the lights had begun to come on. It had been like that with all his decisions. With the decision to leave her for the Swedish civil rights lawyer. To leave the Swede for the Colombian painter. To leave the Colombian for the actress in Karlsruhe. Something within him told him it was time. Told him there was no going back. Some of them, like the Colombian, could not accept it. Blighted his days with their tantrums and their lamentations. Others, like her, understood and accepted. At least with the violin he was the only one to suffer. It had given him more – well, more consistent – pleasure than any of the women he had taken his pleasure with, but it at least could not be hurt. He had laid it in its case and looked at it for one last time, then closed the case and locked it, and although it was still in the flat, shut away in the box-room, waiting for a time when he would give it to his eldest daughter, that half-Swedish woman he found it so difficult to relate to, instead of the dowry he had never been able to afford, he was never tempted to take it out, just as he had never been tempted to communicate with the Swede or the Colombian once he had left them. Or even with her, his first one, who now lay dying in that absurd and tiny country on the other side of the lake.
That they had met again had been entirely of her own doing. Through mutual friends in the lakeside town she had learnt of his presence there, not so far from where she herself had ended up, she said in her letter, in the most boring city in the world, but comfortable enough, Zürich. She had suggested he come over and see her in the flat she had lived in with Fritz, her second husband, the dermatologist, who had died only three years after they were married. He had talked it over with Lotte, he never hid anything from his women. She wants me to go over and see her in Zürich, he had said. Do you think I should go? Why not? Lotte said. I don’t know, he said. I thought you might object. Nous ne sommes pas des enfants, Jody, she said, reverting, as she so often did when some general point had to be made, to the language of her mother. Though you, I know, she added, don’t ever feel a day over fifteen. She was the most worldly-wise of women, an actress, a 60-cigarettes-and-a-bottle-of-scotch-a-day woman of the old school. They had terrible fights. She would not put up with his egoism, his unimaginable narcissism, instilled into him, she said, by ridiculously doting parents. She dragged him across the room by his hair and then, when he had no more hair, by his ears. The trouble with us, she said, is that we were both bred to be princes but in a marriage there is room for only one prince.
He had often thought of leaving her. Getting out. But he knew it would never happen. He wasn’t used to doing that unless there was someone else waiting to welcome him, because deep down he was a family man, or at least a man who could not function without a woman, and at his age the possibility of finding another woman seemed remote, even if he had wanted to. In any case, he was in love with her. Needed her. Though he needed too to be by himself. Which was why the holiday flat by the lake seemed such a good idea. While she performed in Karlsruhe he could come here and – what?
Again, before he could prepare himself for it, the cold hand coiled about his heart, as it did more and more frequently these days. What was there to do now he had stopped playing? He could read, of course, he had always read, though when he was playing there was little time for it. But somehow when you had nothing else to do all day but read the flavour went out of books. He remembered the pleasure he had taken from reading, in buses, in trains, in green rooms, in dingy cafés next to recording studios, remembered the anguish he would feel when he dipped into his bag and realised he had forgotten his book.
The lights glittered on the hillsides and the shore on the other side now that even the waters of the lake were dark. Switzerland and England were the only countries in Western Europe which still jealously guarded their borders, but though handing over his passport and waiting while an official scrutinised it, scrutinised him, then finally gave it back, still left him trembling slightly, as though by simply wishing to cross the border he had committed some offence, he knew this was irrational and even reluctantly admired this country for retaining its much-vaunted neutrality, its non-involvement with the rest of Europe, whatever happened. He even secretly envied her the fact that she had ended up there, in that neutral country, while the vagaries of life had landed him, at the last, in a country which for the moment tolerated him, but which he would never learn to trust. Though it gave him an irrational feeling of comfort that, here, he was so close to Switzerland that he could get across the border in no time at all if Germany should ever revert again to what it had been in his youth. For if life had taught him anything at all it was that one must always be prepared for the worst.
He loved the way the light stayed in the water long after it was dark everywhere else. And then, however hard you looked, you could never catch the moment when the light went out there too.
She had always been direct, so he had not been surprised when one day, as soon as she had served him the tea and cakes he had grown used to on these visits, she had told him how it was. Surely, he had said, these days, doctors… No, Joseph, she had said (she was the only one of his women who had not tried to find a diminutive for his name and he was oddly grateful to her for that), no. They have told me. This is the end.
Why was his first feeling one of anger? With her, for putting him in this situation? With life, for doing this to her? He had not asked to renew acquaintance with her. It had all been her doing. Perhaps she had known when she first got in touch with him. Had prepared things for just this moment. I’m sure you’re exaggerating, he said. Oh, Joseph, she said.
He did not know how he had extricated himself. How he had got down the stairs and to the station. But in the train he recalled her eyes, the same clear grey eyes he had first seen all those years ago in the ante-room of his music teacher in Buenos Aires. He tried to banish them from his mind but they would not go away.
She had never blamed him for leaving her. Not in words. Not even in thought, he knew. She had suffered but she had not blamed him.
At the door she had put a hand on his elbow. I didn’t want to give you worries, Joseph, she said. But I wanted you to know.
How long? he asked.
Six months, she said. If I am lucky.
He did not ask if she considered the luck to lie in the length or the brevity of the reprieve. When she closed the door of the apartment, quietly, firmly, as she had always shut doors, and he found himself on the landing in front of the empty lift-shaft, he thought of the moment when he closed the lid of the violin case for the last time. He knew he would not be going back.
But he found himself leaving Karlsruhe more and more often, even though autumn had arrived and the weather had grown suddenly chilly, coming here, to the flat by the lake, climbing the stairs to the attic room and sitting, as he was doing now, in the easy chair at the window, gazing out.
He had, of course, immediately told Lotte. She had no time for sentimentality. She had had a daughter who had died in infancy, but she did not speak about her. Or about her own childhood. She had her work. And her cigarettes and whisky. Go on, she said to him. I know you want to get to the lake. Don’t stay here for my sake.
But the question was, what to do with himself now he no longer played. He read biographies of Heifetz and Kreisler and books about the earth. Geology had always interested him. If he had not had this gift for the violin he would have become a geologist. If he had managed to survive, of course, which was a moot point. But now he had nothing else to do but read he found reading tedious. There were so many books to read. So much to learn about. And what did any of it have to do with him?
He could have taught, had enjoyed the teaching he did at the Royal College and at various summer schools. But you can only teach what you practise, he felt, and when he no longer practised how could he teach?
The violin is the language of no one nation but of mankind, one of his teachers had said to him. It crosses all borders and brings all the peoples of the earth together. He had found that true in practice, for wherever he played, in Caracas or Tokyo, in Moscow or New Delhi, in Sydney or Oslo, the audience was rapt, the applause ecstatic. He had never been good with words, but who needed words when he could play the violin?
Why then had he stopped? Because it was inhuman, that was the truth of it. All those hours of practice since the age of three had turned him into a machine. They had no doubt made him a better violinist but they had also killed something inside him.
He was trembling now, as always happened when he tried to explain his actions to himself. He should go to bed, he thought, but he went on sitting at the window, looking out at the lights twinkling across the water. He didn’t sleep badly these days, but he didn’t sleep particularly well either. And he woke up tired, as he never had in the old days. Was that the result of age? Or of the fact that there was nothing to look forward to the next day? Or did his body perhaps feel the need for the violin, after all, he couldn’t remember a time when he was not holding it, cradling it, feeling it nestling under his chin or held loosely in his left hand, and even now, so many years after he had put it away, he would find his fingers moving in the air by themselves, like those of a man who has given up smoking but whose fingers still crook themselves round the absent cigarette.
She wants me to go and see her, he had said to Lotte. Do you mind? And she had said: Nous ne sommes pas des enfants, Jody. If she wants you and you want to go, go.
So he had taken the train and then the bus as she had instructed him, and climbed the stairs, ignoring the tiny ancient lift, wondering what it would be like when she opened the door. After all, it had been a quarter of a century since he had held her to him, to show her he still loved her only could no longer go on being with her, they were both crying, and then turned away from her for what they both thought was the last time.
The flat was small and cluttered. He died last year, she said, catching him looking at the photo on a side-table. Please, she said. Sit. He sat down in the chair she pointed to. You want tea? she asked him. He smiled at her. She was the one he had been most comfortable with. Perhaps it was the comfort that had troubled him in the end, had led him, eventually, to leave her. As though he needed to take a few more blows from life before his final exit, to make up for what had happened to his parents, perhaps, or for some other obscure reason.
When they were sipping their tea in the tall glasses in their silver holders he remembered so well, and nibbling the cakes she had placed on the table between them, he asked her: It was good with him?
Yes, she said.
She had always been happy with one-word answers, he recalled, had no use for embroidery.
He looked at her over the rim of his glass.
And you? she asked.
She waited. Then she said: What led you to leave England?
You remember? he said. I said I would never leave.
But I left, he said.
She gazed past him, out of the window, at the blue summer sky.
It happens, he said. You are sure you will never do something and then you find you are doing it.
She did not appear to have heard.
Lotte, he said. She could not leave her work.
And you? she said, turning back to him. You work in Germany now?
No, he said. I retired.
A musician never retires, she said.
But I retired, he said, smiling at her.
Then why did you do it?
I had to do it.
I understand, she said.
They sipped their tea.
After that he came to see her every few months. He put his passport in his pocket and boarded the train. Everywhere in Europe now you could travel without seeing a border or a guard. Only in Switzerland and in Britain they stopped you and asked you questions. But though it always scared him he knew it was irrational. His skin was white. He had never set foot in the Middle East. Others might have problems but for a change a little Jew from mitteleuropa had no problems. Do you mind that I go and see her? he asked Lotte. Mind? she said. Why should I mind? And then, later, when he told her she was dying: Why do you never go and see her now? She needs you, No, he said. She doesn’t need anyone. And Lotte didn’t pursue it.
But was it true? Did he believe it himself? Yes. To himself he never lied. To others, perhaps, especially women, when there was no other option. But with himself he was always honest. We live and then we die. Let’s not pretend otherwise. We live as best we can and then we die because we have to. No-one can alleviate the terror of it. The loneliness. Soon it would be his turn. And then Lotte’s. And then, one by one, his children. Perhaps it was time to give his daughter the violin. Let her do with it what she wanted. He would phone and see when she and her husband could come over and collect it.
He stared out across the border at the lights of the country on the other side. Perhaps she has already died, he thought, and the lights simply went on shining, like the stars in the sky, many of which have long since died but the news of whose demise has not yet reached us.
All I can do is sit and wait, he thought. Then he berated himself. I can do lots of things, he thought. I can go to bed and try to sleep. Or read. And then in the morning I can pack up and go back to Karlsruhe.
But he went on sitting in the easy chair, looking out across the dark waters of the lake.