DUET | David Rix As the months passed and turned into years, he tried his best to forget about Marija upstairs. For a long time she had been there as life passed by down below. He had not approached her door or looked in since the night it had happened, only left it sealed up and abandoned. It was hard to imagine a truly hidden place in London – a city full of swarming eyes and where privacy is as rare as loneliness is common. But in this case that room had lingered, unvisited and unused – even unopened. There was something shockingly untenable about this – about a dead girl upstairs – but, as the years came and went, she continued with what might seem almost a beautiful stasis. And he was the murderer, the man with death in his fingers. So why was he still alive? He would also have asked why he was still free if freedom still existed. * There is an energy in the violin that you don’t get in many other instruments – maybe that was why the violin has always been associated with the devil. Play the cello or the guitar and you are caressing a beautiful woman – the flute and you are a fluttering bird or dancing satyr – but the violin, gripped under your chin while the bow flails with savage energy . . . maybe then it feels more like a weapon. So was that what was going on here, he wondered, as two bows flurried the air? A duel of two strange weapons? That wasn’t what music was about. The expression on Amy’s face certainly didn’t seem friendly though, and he could sense her pushing at him, competing with him, restraining him as the complex music coiled round them both. It was Henryk Górecki: Sonata for Two Violins – bitter, cold and aggressively modernist yet very beautiful as well. As the harsh tones filled the room, he found himself zoning out, forgetting her, forgetting himself even, as his fingers danced and as flicking black light played at the corners of his eyes. It was a music that resonated some other more esoteric set of strings deep inside him, its frozen irregular shapes sweeping him away. Music of crystal patterns and organic growth rather than heartbeat or pulse. It would count onwards in a stream of ones or twos or threes, increasing or decreasing tension, dragging you onwards or pushing you down. Music that took you on a journey. Energy, ferocity, serenity, silence – like human life itself, sometimes a matter of slow inevitable development or emotional turmoil, or sometimes total shock out of nowhere . . . Finally it ended, with some last stabbing chords like lashes from a leather whip. And the bows were still. “Wow,” she said, drawing a deep breath. “That was intense – you were leaving me behind a bit there.” “Was I?” “Yeah. Maybe we can tighten that up.” “Funny,” he said mildly. “I was feeling exactly the same thing.” She gave him a thoughtful look. “We need to come together more,” he said. “We need to be as one.” “Hum – yes, I suppose,” she said awkwardly. “Again?” he asked, turning back to the first page of the score. She gave a restive sigh. “Enough for now,” she said. “I’m getting tired. It’s not exactly a relaxing piece . . .” “It’s not?” he asked, with a small kernel of genuine surprise. “Very well – let’s sit down – and listen to the silence instead.” Amy settled rather primly on the sofa and he studied her for a moment. Smartly and reservedly dressed with formal-looking black suit trousers and a severe-looking blouse, her hair long and brown, falling straight over her shoulders. Almost as though she was performing in some imaginary concert, even here and now in his dark wood-floored home. She looked around the room. “I must say, you have a rather nice silence here, for London.” He nodded. “Yes,” he breathed. “I sometimes think that if you can’t hear silence, then you can never hope to hear sound.” “You’re weird, you know that,” she said with a smile. He shrugged with a faint hint of defensiveness. “Well – it just strikes me as funny. Music is everywhere – and yet so little of it seems to, well, ever listen to the silence it is supposed to be replacing. It’s as if there’s a war going on instead.” He sat down beside her, feeling slightly uncomfortable. Now there was a parallel pressure – to keep talking for the same reason. To prevent the all-powerful silence crashing in again. And yet why should that be? The silence when the last musical note has sounded is probably among the most profound sounds that can ever be heard. The silence after sex – the silence after sound – the silence after death . . . and he found himself watching her again, wondering what thought processes were active behind those reserved-looking eyes. Something he could never know or touch. “Strange house actually,” she said at last, a twinge of jealousy in her voice. “It’s a pretty amazing place to just – have. I live in a room stuck behind a freelance hairdressing studio in Hackney Wick. I mean literally you have to go through the studio to get in and the shower is hidden in the corner behind the barber’s chair.” “Well,” he said awkwardly, feeling a slight twinge of guilt, “I guess I was lucky. I inherited it. It used to be a tiny factory – I didn’t convert it much, just cleared out most of the equipment. If it wasn’t for this place, I don’t know what would have happened to me.” “You’d probably be in my cupboard,” she said with a rather humourless grin. “Not much silence there.” He nodded simply. “Probably. I could not face being anywhere other than London. Beyond the boundary of the city there is nothing but darkness. I would rather die than be forced out – so yes, very lucky.” She was staring at him with a blank look in her eyes. He gave a sudden laugh. “Sorry – I didn’t mean to be depressing. I will get you a drink. Would you like some wine?” he asked. “I have some rather good Australian Shiraz here.” She laughed. “Ummm – actually, no thanks. Though don’t let me stop you.” He studied the bottle a moment on the shelf, then shrugged it off. His eyes briefly searched the room for the moving black shapes, but they seemed to have gone now. All he could find was a blurred pale shape up by the ceiling – a moth trying to navigate this weird roofed world. There always seemed to be moths. And always then the merging of the black and the pale . . . “So what do you think?” Amy asked, a hint of doubt in her voice. “Think we can pull this off? It’s a hard piece.” “I think we can manage something. We could perform it in the old warehouse cave room I suppose – to the usual audience of six. But we need to come together. We need to find that union otherwise music doesn’t happen. There needs to be one music, not two. One body, one mind, one instrument . . . The question is how.” He gave her a thoughtful look, narrowing his eyes slightly – and now she looked even more uneasy. “What do you mean?” she asked. He was very well aware of the vague kind of innuendo in his words, but there seemed no other way to put it. No other option. That’s what music was. You either come together with a sense of intimacy and melding rarely experienced in human life – or the music crumbles and fails. Studying her now, it suddenly seemed a very remote possibility. “Maybe we need to try some bonding exercises,” he said evasively, beginning to feel a bit awkward again himself. “Hmm – I’m not sure . . .” There was another silence – a less pleasant one than earlier. He glanced round the room absently. “The moths are active tonight,” he said. “Moths?” “Yes – they always come around at night when I play – the Black Sheet Moth and the pale. They are everywhere.” She gave him an uncomprehending look, then shifted uncomfortably. “Right – must be the warm weather. Um, look – I, er, I’m sorry but . . .” Her eyes flickering around the room towards the door. She coughed. “I’m not sure myself. Sorry, I don’t think I can do this. It’s a nice idea but . . .” He was silent, his face falling. “I just don’t think it will work.” “Oh?” he said, hoping that what was in his mind was not visible on his face. “I’m going to have to go as well I think,” she muttered, “it’s getting late – and – and I need to get home before . . .” “Oh right – of course,” he said expressionlessly. “So – well, thanks,” she said, putting her coat on. “And – um – sorry. I’ll see you around sometime.” He was dimly aware of her letting herself out, looking red faced and awkward – even a little resentful – the door opening but not closing again behind her. He sat down, feeling a weird prickle of shock and stared into space. It was a rejection – but maybe she was right. Maybe it was a waste of time to hope for any kind of true music any more. Not now. Like true love, you only ever get a certain number of chances – or maybe even just one – before everything subsequent begins to taste bitter. He finally reached for the bottle and poured a glass of wine. Maybe it was time to check upstairs at last . . . * And now – then – years ago – Marija, also playing the violin. Her fingers dancing like spider feet, her face ferocious with intent, her body moving like wire. Marija – playing with a delicate passion like no other. Intricate. Complex. Harsh. Beautiful . . . Going by her name and the brief program he had picked up, she was one of the many immigrants from somewhere out east – spat out by the Yugoslav wars no doubt, given the time when this had happened. Largely irrelevant in the political climate of London, both then and now. She had been performing in an old warehouse space in the East End, where the massive brickwork suggested something of docks or canals in the distant past – hints of crane and pulley and transient merchandise. The dingy vaulted roof curving overhead reflected any sound like a cauldron as he waited patiently for the concert to begin – the slightest movement of his foot or chair. It was like a cathedral of industry that crouched black and oppressive over the island of light in the middle of the floor. It was going to be one of those underground concerts that hopeful new artists might put on before the world crushes them to dust and forgets them – hidden and never-known geniuses in the underworld of the contemporary classical music scene. Lone soloists or edgy ensembles in crumbling and abandoned industrial rooms – basements, converted warehouses, old cinemas, even abandoned residential spaces occasionally. Sometimes the intrusion of the city would be all too apparent – the rumble of trains in the middle distance, streaming traffic, revellers in the room next door, bustling machinery overhead. Or sometimes, like now, the silence would be more profound than any church or concert hall. Audiences would be small – but fanatically dedicated. Or drunk and mystified. You could never know. Or even, as seemed to be the case here, non-existent. He stared round in increasing agitation as the time ticked on towards the appointed hour. Surely there would be someone else? Surely he would not be the only person who had bothered to turn up for this obscure little event? These concerts were always rendered rather bitter by their circumstances – but that would be almost heart-breaking. It was unmistakably a shock to her as well, when she finally walked on into that light island – a bitter and unhappy shock. And he felt he could read every little flicker of despair in her mind perfectly. She actually hesitated, gave a confused glance round the room, her eyes focussing on him, sitting alone in a chair at the front, the one and only audience member . . . The one and only audience member . . . And he looked back, feeling a kind of frozen awkwardness within himself as well – something between a desperate apology and a wry grin on his face. For a moment it looked as though she was going to speak to him, but then her classical training kicked in and she just gave a small formal bow, the twist of her lip saying that she was well aware of the general absurdity. However, whatever awkwardness there may have been – his nervousness, his consciousness of the echoing empty space around them both – quickly faded as she took up her position just a few feet away, cold light bathing her skin. So close he could almost reach out and touch her. Lines were etched into her face and her hands skinny and wrinkled beyond her age. She wore rough city clothes – black scruffy jeans and a black and gold waistcoat in some jarring deferral to classical traditions, a haircut as jagged and harsh as her music, cut short and hairsprayed severely out of the way of her violin – a tattoo of a black flower visible on her bare arm. And he watched – as the bow floated in the air a moment with a prickle of anticipation – and as the first sound rang out, long and rich. As that music developed, the rest of the world faded – the sense of emptiness and loneliness faded – even she faded – and all that was left was the harsh and passionate notes invading the world. It was a program of Ligeti, Penderecki, Schnittke and others he had never heard of – modernist composers with an Eastern European flavour. Complex and experimental, but filled with a cold and angry passion. It was a concert of music that stretches the pallet of sounds and notes and harmonies and techniques as far as possible. Music that seeks the last and deepest possibilities of expression. Music that counted in fives and sevens and thirteens as much as threes and fours – or maybe counted with nothing at all. Music that was shaped rather than numbered. But more importantly than that, this was a type of music that had grown among those who felt everything the keenest yet were persecuted the harshest, seeded by two world wars and eternal political turmoil. The ghosts of pogroms and purges and splits and bloodshed still felt here in the new chaos of the 90s when everything, there and here, seemed grey. It was music where you could still feel the rage of civil unrest and protest, even now – then – years ago – as another war raged in Eastern Europe. It was music where the ghosts and anti-intellectual flounderings of powerful children whose greatest fear was people who could think seemed very near. And also the cavorting mad humour of art that is stifled and sent underground. It was a kind of music that still ran wild in an attempt to find some kind of expression that nothing else could provide. Some kind of balm for wounds nothing else could ever heal. When the silence finally came crashing in like ocean waves, Marija gave another formal looking bow, obviously far from happy, eyes flickering to him and away again several times. And yes he actually clapped his hands awkwardly a few times, an embarrassed smile on his face. “Wait,” he said, as she turned to leave. She paused and glanced back. He nodded thoughtfully, looking at the floor. “That was great – really,” he said quietly, seriously. “Magical. Thanks for playing.” She hesitated one last moment, then the formal façade gave way. “Oh fuck it,” she said, her voice as deep as her G string, her accent as heavy and harsh as her hair. “Thanks. I’m . . . glad . . .” She gave him an awkward look, still wondering whether she should be maintaining the barriers inevitably erected between performer and audience, author and recipient – then she dropped down in an empty chair with a twinkle of humour. “Joj – what a disaster.” “Not a disaster,” he said. “Not for you anyway. For them, maybe.” He pointed at the empty chairs with a grin. And then the conversation slid deep and long and smooth into all the esoterics of modernist violin music, first in that deserted venue, then later in the cold East London streets, and finally in a quiet bar in another converted industrial space nearby . . . * . . . and about a fortnight later, the two violins played together for the first time. The musical notes coiling and exploring – uncertain, like your first fumbling attempts to explore another body, yet blazing bright, dazzling, almost painful, like no other he had ever experienced. Each instrument the forever incomplete and hungry gamete demanding fulfilment and union. A meshing together on many levels, every level, from the most physical as they breathed and moved in agitated unison, to the most ethereal as the surrounding world faded away to nothing . . . * It was all a fog anyway – but one thing was certain in his mind. He was a murderer. The door wouldn’t move, he knew. He had made sure of that. So he armed himself with some tools from the kitchen cupboard and set to work breaking the seal. It was hard – he had done a thorough job, even filling the cracks and keyhole with epoxy and foam. But after a lot of gouging and leveraging, it moved with a sharp crack and he flinched away. He stood frozen for a moment, then slowly opened the door further, half-expecting to see a flood of black light radiating out – but there was nothing. No visual, audible or olfactory extremes, just a faint musty smell and shadow. He peered in, then stared down for a moment at a pair of shoes sitting neatly together just inside. Familiar comfortable trainers, covered with a sheen of dust. Those trainers nearly caused him to choke with their agonising familiarity. But beyond them his eyes soon found the one thing he didn’t want to look at, barely visible in the dark . . . The bed looked ruined – a sagged shape, half rotted away where she had rotted away. But the rot and dissolution had been limited in this dry room. Now everything was desiccated – as was she. She lay there in exactly the posture he remembered leaving her in – as though sleeping. But now she was only dry and dusty bones. He stepped into the room and quietly opened the curtains, letting in a glow of city light and revealing an anonymous view across London’s rooftops to the distant railway. As the glow drifted in, he glanced round uneasily for flickering black hidden in the corners – but there was nothing. Nothing to do but stare down at her, feeling as though water was flowing and heaving within him. Vast water, like the ocean. What did it matter that he hadn’t meant any of this? What did grief matter? Such was the way the world worked. And whatever fundamental unfairness may lie in that was not really relevant here and now. He just stared around the room in infinite sadness. Maybe it was time to start disposing of this once and for all. Just a bit at a time, ground to a powder in his mortar and pestle maybe and cast to the winds around this thronging city – until this guilty secret was no more. Until Marija was finally as vanished as her music. A pale blur caught his eye then and he looked round sharply. The moth bounced against the ceiling. It looked stupid and useless in this dead environment, barely able even to navigate, but he still watched it with keen eyes. Pale. In his head, it seemed as though the violin bow was moving again in anticipation, string stretched taut and exposed over the bridge – strangely like a human form itself, stretched, bent with tight skin and awaiting the most erotic touch. And the contact of the bow – a hundred resined threads picking up the string, the skin, vibrating, grinding out notes that were deep and slow and intense. And the room shimmered slightly, the faint glow from the distant street lights picking out the swirling motes of dust in the air. And then what could only be a dream. The long-faded bones sitting up and reaching out towards him, fleshed again in translucent black, even as more moths flickered round the room. Some of them pale – some of them black. It was not horrible – more like a hint of the tenderness and affection that she had never been able to display in reality. Never in the world beyond her music anyway. He just stared at her. Then accepted the hug, dropping first to one knee on the bed, then flat on his face. There was a bang in the distance. “Hello?” a voice called. “Are you there? Look – I’m sorry I ran off. Maybe I was over-reacting a little. Are you ok?” The sounds of footsteps blundering about below. A light flicked on beyond the open door. He stared vaguely, with little idea what the distant voice was even talking about. “Where are you?” Amy called. He glanced down at the bone-black arms around him, as footsteps came pattering upstairs. He could have pulled away – could have done something – but this was a special moment. Some hugs you just didn’t break. Instead he simply watched the figure put her head round the door, long brown hair trailing. She stared in for just one moment, then lightning struck. “Hey – what are you . . . oh my fucking god,” she gulped, strangely casual in tone, her eyes widening stupidly, then she had jerked away as though yanked on a chord and was gone. There was a tremendous clatter on the stairs and the door banged in the distance. What did it matter? He looked down again to find bones littering the bed around him in an untidy pile – her restful posture finally disturbed after all this time. Surely there was something significant here that he should be realising. But everything seemed beyond thinking about. All he wanted to do was continue to exist within this emotional sea that swirled around him – as though London itself was drowning. Fragments of pavements and railings tumbling in water. Buildings leaning and shifting in the swell. The sea bigger than the sea should be. And the female figure out of memory that gave him a friendly greeting from the watery chaos before him. * When the long long journey of notes was finally over, they had just stood in silence save for heavy breathing – Marija looking at him with a small smile, then rubbing the sweat from her forehead. It was an extraordinary silence – one of the most powerful he had ever known – and there was no need to break it. No need to speak or use words to communicate. Indeed, in that silence, any sound, even more music, would be an intrusion. There was an energy in the air – connected to the music, to her haunting eyes staring at him, to her flushed and sweaty skin and hard breathing, to her bedraggled hair, to her bare feet on the rough wood of his floor. The whole room seemed black with faded music in ways he had never seen before – the violins almost feeling warm to the touch. Touch. Only one sense could possibly exist in that hot silence – touch. And both knew it. With an actual slight tremble in his hand, he reached out towards her. It was the first time he had ever touched her, even casually, and that came with a weird prickle and glow of correctness. With what seemed infinite slowness, his hand progressed towards making the connection. She glanced round at him – a curious, uneasy but welcoming expression on her face. Touch – the most obscure and restrained yet powerful of the senses. Her hand also rose up in response, not aiming to touch fingers, but to link arms, each hand grasping a shoulder in a heated and affectionate hug. But that warm gesture was never quite reached. Contact . . . His fingers touching her skin first – and a violent black flash arcing between them. It snaked like black lightning from instrument to instrument. It was impossible to say in which of them it originated or which direction it was going – but it stretched up her arm, through her chest and shoulder and into his hand, then down across him to his own violin. It was gone in a fraction of a second, but the nasty all-encompassing snap it made stunned him. He stared without feeling as the violin fell from her fingers onto the sofa – a smooth white expression on her face – before she slowly leaned and fell, hitting the floor with a tremendous crash. His own violin felt hot in his hand now – very distinctly. And it glowed with a black light. They both did. Still without feeling, he put it down, vaguely aware of a faint noise coming from it as the strings thrummed to themselves. Without knowing why, he picked up her violin as well and placed it alongside his own. They sat there a pair – thrumming with dark. The Black Sheet Moth. It was there. It streaked round the room – agitated movement in stillness – long black antennae feeling ahead in a flurry. Marija? He murmured to the fallen figure. Later he had her lying on his bed upstairs – heart still and chest still and nimble fingers still. And he stared round in confused terror. On the ceiling, a pale moth was moving, a bouncing blur. Others were at the window. Black and pale everywhere. But inside there was already an ocean – an ocean that heaved and expanded and would never go away. There was nothing he could do here. Instead he went downstairs. Her shoes were still standing in the doorway – politely side by side. Small and unpretentious trainers in black. And still moths. Even with the windows closed, they were somehow managing to find a way in. His hand touched his mobile phone for a moment – then removed itself. They would think he was a murderer. He was a murderer. Finally, much later, he pushed her shoes round the door of that upstairs room, then locked it. Then tramped downstairs and spent the rest of the night staring at the corner of the kitchen. And the next day he set about attempting to seal the room. Epoxy went into the cracks in the window, then the curtains were closed. And finally the door was also sealed, then locked shut. Then even the keyhole filled. A bookcase obscured it from view as though it had never existed. Every day he expected someone to come. He gave up answering the door or the phone. Parcels that wouldn’t fit through the letterbox had to be collected from the sorting office. He communicated through answerphone and email. But nobody did. That was the weird thing. Nobody knew – or cared. As far as the world was concerned, Marija the refugee violinist had never existed. * Slowly disentangling himself from the old bones, which clicked and clattered dully, he stood up. His hand brushed at his face, barely conscious that he was brushing away dust and smuts that were once her. His jacket was filthy but he ignored that as well. There was something that needed to be done now. He picked up her violin and put it to his chin. It was time to play a threnody. It was as dusty as the rest of the room – a dust that was thick and oily. It also looked slightly warped, but still intact. Still somehow glowing as it had so long ago. The bow touched the strings with a flaccid scrape and he quickly tightened the tuning pegs. And as he did so, as sound slowly found its way into note, darkness flickered again – an undulating film of black. This was a different kind of music. He was playing from no score, following no system. He just allowed the notes to come, sounding like bells, sliding sombrely from one to another, even microtones. Long-breathed, free, random, vibrating – each one somehow containing all the emotion of a whole life. The tone of the strings had degraded rather but even that seemed appropriate under the circumstances. Tones whispered and shadowed in dust – the dust of a pain hidden for eons. The Black Sheet Moth didn’t seem to mind either. Sheets and tendrils, strange swirling shapes, like a black amoeba or many-headed planarian worm, a manta ray with moth tentacles or a sheet swirling in a stream . . . slow but with great exuberance and sharp movements, the Black Sheet Moth danced, excited to be aroused again after so long. And he played to follow, and to lead – to find again that perfect musical union where both terms are meaningless. With a despairing noise, a string suddenly snapped – then almost immediately another. The two lowest strings, G and D. He frowned in shock. The coiled steel had deteriorated but he paid no heed, just continued scraping at the remaining two, the threnody soaring to higher pitches. But the Black Sheet Moth heeded. It flinched in real pain and twanged/flickered across the room. He watched it forlornly. The Black Sheet Moth was no enemy - Another snap and he was reduced to just the highest string – a shrill almost painful final sound, wailing like an animal vocalisation. Then that failed as well and the wood of the old violin warped back in ecstatic freedom and fell from his chin. The neck and the fingerboard separated into two layers – different woods built to be under tension from the strings that filled their lives, now unable to cope with their absence. And the energy that was the Black Sheet Moth was cut. Marija’s violin was dead. There were tears in his eyes as he stared down at the scattered bones and forlorn dumb maple, spruce and ebony wood. The first tears ever. He stared down at the ruined violin and tasted that feeling. Salt. Oysters. * Noise is no fundamental. Only silence is fundamental. And any noise intrudes . . . a strange philosophy for a musician . . . * There was an inevitability about this. Sooner or later an ending had always been bound to come. Even as fists hammered on the door below. He crossed to the window and peered out, taking in the uniformed figures in the street – guarding the main entrance. Shouting voices behind. “Too bad,” he whispered sadly.