Excerpt from ‘Unfinished Symphony’ a novel about a fictional composer written between 1968 and 1972
Setting: Rome and England during the late 1960’s
Richard Stanbrook was waiting for him at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport amidst the turmoil and confusion of an Italian airport strike. He’s a pillar of composure and order in a world of disorder, thought Paul, as Ricky crossed the arrivals hall dressed in a smart cotton suit, making sure he never came into contact with cases and trolleys, or the seethe of humanity, especially the infantile branch.
They walked out of the building into the midday sun. Cars glimmered round them and the smell of rubber and vehicle exhaust made Paul keenly aware of the unpleasantness a hot day can cause someone not used to extreme heat.
Suddenly he spotted the Lancia sports, Stanbrook’s great white bird, and they walked faster as though the car had willed it. There was someone sitting in the front passenger seat. Paul wondered who it could be. Stanbrook opened the driver’s door and his companion turned round to unlock the rear door for Paul. Once inside Stanbrook introduced the stranger.
‘Paul Martin meet Basil Todd.’ Basil turned round and shook hands. He was a small man; at least he seemed small sitting beside Stanbrook. Apart from his parched, hide-like skin and intelligent eyes, he seemed very ordinary.
Paul was pleased he could size Basil up from behind, before the man had had a chance to study him. However, Stanbrook had doubtless acquainted Basil with Paul’s history, rendering him less curious than Paul was. Paul looked at Basil’s clothes; they appeared dusty, grey and desperately in need of ironing.
Basil spoke at last. Until now he’d only smiled a great deal.
‘Did you have a good flight, Paul?’
‘Not bad,’ replied Paul with the air of a seasoned traveller.
‘Basil is an economist,’ said Stanbrook.
(Paul had sensed Basil had a connection to the social sciences.)
The car slid out of the parking lot and headed towards the airport entrance. Then it flashed round a corner and sped off in the direction of the City.
Stanbrook kept up a lively flow of conversation, avoiding any mention of Paul’s mother.
‘Basil, what do you think of Darkest Africa’s future?’
‘Oh, quite magnificent, Richard. It’s developing into something complex and fascinating.’
Basil moved his hands, strong neat fingers, expressively.
Paul was intrigued.
‘I’d love to go there,’ he said, as if Africa was a single place rather than a continent.
‘Most people who’ve never been there say that,’ said Basil.
‘It’s remarkable what goes on there,’ Paul added less confidently.
Basil never replied, but instead became involved in the economics inherent in the design of some tall building they had just passed. Ricky was also interested, but for the design itself.
‘I have watched it progressing. It has logic.’
‘Of course it has. They’ve vast resources which they need to invest in order to get a return in excess of bank rate.’
Paul was mystified by Basil and his economics and wondered how Ricky had struck up an acquaintance with such a boring man.
He wasn’t left in doubt for long.
‘It’s been how long, Richard, since we first met in Nairobi during the troubles?’
‘Time has wings.’
‘I remember now. I gave my first series of lectures on the profit motive and price mechanism round then. They favour private enterprise in Africa. Good sense in that regard.’
‘We met at Alexander Sinclair’s house, as I recall,’ said Stanbrook. ‘I remember Sinclair well. We were at school together. He was a talented cricketer and footballer.’
‘I knew him while I was up at Cambridge,’ Basil added. ‘A bright student with a gift for philosophy. He’s dead, you know.’
‘Dead!’ exclaimed Stanbrook, lighting a large Havana. Basil did not smoke. ‘You do glean some amazing information. Remember, he is only our age.’
‘Shot himself. Had nervous breakdowns, as I recall. His behaviour was very strange that night we dined at his house. Do you remember how he kept taking all those tablets and pills while the servants were serving dessert?’
Basil cleared his parched throat.
Stanbrook replied that he did.
‘He became an alcoholic, did he not?’
‘Amongst other things,’ said Basil. ‘His reputation grew increasingly impious as time passed. I saw some newspaper clippings Angus McGee got hold of. Sinclair was involved in large-scale embezzlement while keeping up an outward pretence of decency. Rather a bastard, I’d say.’
They were nearing their destination. The car glided along vias and passed piazzas that seemed familiar. Paul could have sworn one or two of the faces he glimpsed were ones he knew. Stanbrook waved to a handsome youth as they passed the Piazza Gioacchino Rossini. They were now in familiar, friendly territory.
Paul was surprised to learn Basil had already spent a week at Ricky’s, and he couldn’t help suspecting Basil was trying to usurp his place when he learnt he would be staying for another week.
Paul went straight to his bedroom, taking his cases with him, before coming down to the drawing room. The luxury of the room meant a great deal to him now.
Basil and Ricky were sitting, talking.
Suddenly, from a concealed corner, out popped Claire. Paul felt shattered. He thought she had gone for good.
‘Hello, Paul,’ she said, her finger ringed once more.
‘Gosh, I never expected to see you here,’ Paul blurted. ‘Hello.’
She looked at him narrowly as she sloped out of the corner.
‘Hello, boys,’ she said to Ricky and Basil. ‘I’ll put the kettle on and we’ll all have some tea.’
‘A good idea,’ said Ricky.
So far nobody had said a word about Sue. Paul was tense and anxious and left the drawing room and followed Claire to the kitchen. She turned round to look at him. There was a pimple on her cheek which he wished she would squeeze.
‘How are you doing, Paul?’
‘All right. And you?’
‘I’ve been reinstated!’
She shrugged her head and shoulders and smiled proudly.
‘In bed. She’s got the flu.’
‘I must go and see her.’
‘I wouldn’t do that right now, unless you want to get it and give it to Ricky and Basil. Basil has a lecturing tour in Scotland pending. I was sorry to hear about your mother,’ she continued in a more intimate tone.
‘Has Sue been to the doctor?’
‘Yes. You should be able to see her in a few days’ time. Perhaps on Thursday.’
The formal manner was resumed.
He left the kitchen and joined the others for tea in the drawing room.
‘As I was saying,’ said Basil, holding a third cup of tea in a jittery hand, ‘history’s moved out of Europe and emigrated to Asia and Africa. The rate of progress in the new states is phenomenal. Far more impressive than how things happened in Europe.’
‘But do not forget, Basil,’ said a tealess Stanbrook, pointing a commanding index finger, ‘we had first to discover the knowledge, and painfully too. The new states receive it second- hand, but it arrives in first-rate condition.’
When Ricky spoke, Claire appeared to nod agreement more often than previously.
Basil stirred his teaspoon round and round in his teacup and continued:
‘Richard, you haven’t set foot in Africa since the days before independence. You’d be amazed what things are like there now.’ He added more intimately, ‘I’ve made my own small contribution in this regard. Very slight, of course.’ He ended in a whisper and smiled proudly.
‘I read the English papers,’ said Ricky. ‘I get their version of the news. I consider myself to be well-informed. I am aware that progress is being made in Darkest Africa; nevertheless far too much energy is wasted on coup d’état and civil war.’
‘Such is the tragedy......Such is the tragedy,’ sighed Basil. ‘But we cannot criticise. We have no room,’ and he went on to describe his brilliant contribution to various developmental programmes in a number of African states.
Paul was thoroughly bored with the conversation, so he asked Claire how her portrait of Ricky was progressing.
‘It’s been shelved,’ said Claire. ‘I was unable to get to grips with the funny old subject.’
Stanbrook laughed a happy reconciliation laugh. Basil and Paul echoed his laugh.
‘I gather you’re a musician, Paul,’ said Basil. ‘Perhaps we could play something together.’
‘Are you a musician?’
‘Indeed Basil is,’ said Ricky. ‘He is a very capable cellist.’
‘My cello’s tucked away upstairs. It’s travelled a great deal.’
‘It has followed Basil around the world,’ added Stanbrook.
‘Right around the globe,’ echoed Claire in husky tones.
‘I play it for comfort,’ said Basil. ‘Often when my thoughts are chock-a-block with higher finance I get it out and play -like Sherlock Holmes playing his fiddle- until the correct interest rates arrive!’
‘What do you have in mind?’ inquired Paul.
‘Perhaps a Beethoven sonata or the two by Brahms. I should add -with great modesty- that I have performed both of them in public.....’
The intelligent eyes lit up and sparkled.
‘I’d like to play with you,’ said Paul. ‘I like the Brahms cello sonatas and I’m sure we’ll enjoy playing them together.’
Basil rested his teacup and moved strong, firm fingers over imaginary cello strings. Ricky winked at Paul.
That evening Paul and Basil made music. The cello was installed beside the piano and the rich sound of Brahms sonatas filled the drawing room, delighting Claire and Ricky, who sat in their accustomed places, smoking and sipping cognacs, and applauding the performers, even at the end of inner movements.
As Paul’s fingers alternated Brahmsian thirds and sixths, as they rippled through arpeggio figures and held the notes of subtle suspensions, as his feet noted important pedal markings, momentary certainty filled his mind so that he grew extremely happy, which made him respond even more sensitively to each nuance in the music. Death and the absence of Sue had no hold over him when the sound of great music was about, since music was the essence of life -the breath of being. With it anything was possible; without it nothing.
And as he played, Paul couldn’t help noticing how well Basil played his much-travelled cello, and how well they read each other’s thoughts as they performed together. Basil was certainly not as unimaginative as he had first thought him to be; on the contrary he had excellent artistic standards, and a performer’s imagination that was as broad as it was contoured. By the end of the evening they had become good friends.
That night when he lay in the large, comfortable bed Ricky had prepared for him, Paul spent a few minutes, before sleep took over, thinking about his patron. Something had occurred to him. Most of those who visited the flat seemed to hold very different views from the one’s Ricky held. The only way he could resolve this anomaly was to assume Ricky enjoyed the sense of challenge his visitors provided him with. And minds can always be changed.