Excerpt from ‘Unfinished Symphony’ a novel about a fictional composer written between 1968 and 1972
Setting: Rome and England during the late 1960’s
Paul was surprised to discover Cecily and Reg hadn’t returned from their day at the beach. It was past midnight, so it was unlikely they’d come back till morning. No doubt they’d stayed with friends or at some hotel -and thank goodness too. He was pleased Angela had left him a plateful of sandwiches along with some cake and biscuits. Full of contentment at having won Sue he carried the goodies to the lounge and sat down on Reg’s sofa and began eating greedily before bounding across the room to turn the radio on. He needed some music. He fiddled with the dial, turning it backwards and forwards until it stumbled on Mozart’s thirty-fourth. He listened attentively. How pure it was. He could scarcely eat. Once more he bounded across the room to turn the volume up and the lights out. (He felt he would concentrate better if his mind wasn’t distracted by extraneous objects.)
And so Mozart’s music filled the Hardings’ lounge. It was something that had come into existence after millions of years of evolution -from the mysterious core of something (or nothing?). He wasn’t sure. The miracle was that it spoke to him and that he understood it instinctively.
Although he believed he could rise to great heights, he knew he could never write music of such depth. This made him made feel very miserable. However, the thought that the gate of ultimate perfection was locked to all of his contemporaries made him feel enormously happy only moments later. But why was it locked? The answer wasn’t difficult to find. It was the state of the world in the sixties. Things were very different now from how they had been when Mozart had been around. After all Mozart hadn’t had to live with the bomb; he’d had time to reflect; time to take stock of things. Supposing he came alive today would his music be quite as sublime? Most definitely not. And then there was the question of whether Western Civilization had passed its peak. It certainly had, and he, Paul, was part of that decline. But perhaps he was getting carried away. So he would concentrate on Mozart. Mozart was unique, just as Bach was unique. And he, Paul Martin, was unique -regardless of whether or not he could tap the source of ultimate musical truth.
Paul thought of Salzburg. He’d never been there. The andante had a wistfulness about it that made him wonder whether it had been written there. Ricky had suggested a trip to south Austria, and he’d scotched the idea, so why not persuade him to go to Salzburg instead? He would contact him later in the day and they could go there for three or four days, since he wouldn’t be able to see Sue until Thursday. It would be easy to ask Cecily and Reg to cancel the arrangements they’d made for him to perform at the Countess von Frickburg’s on Tuesday evening. He thought about the vase and wondered what Angela had done with the pieces. He hoped she hadn’t thrown them away. Even if she had, of what use could they be? Imagine trying to stick them together.
And he laughed as Mozart boomed away in the ‘background’.
He never heard the whole of the finale, since he was in a deep sleep when the final cadence sounded. He had slowly drifted away from sheer exhaustion -nothing could have held him back from the abyss into which his mind had plummeted. But the radio programme (in German) went on long after he had fallen asleep. It went on and on with never-ending discussion about things that meant nothing to him; and this discussion was interrupted from time to time by loud bursts of pop music. Paul heard little of this, but he did eventually hear a persistent knocking which eventually woke him.
‘What’s that,’ he murmured druggedly. ‘The door, it’s the bloody front door. Somebody must there. God, I hope it’s not Cecily and Reg.’
He got up from the sofa and sneaked out of the lounge and switched on the hall lights. The knocking became more persistent, and there was no letting up on the part of the knocker’s impatience.
‘What the hell’s going on?’ he called mezzoforte at the door.
He heard a muffled thud outside the door, while his ears rang with the sound of the pop music.
‘What the hell’s going on?’ he said more loudly as he opened the door.
He was pleasantly surprised and amused to find it wasn’t Cecily and Reg who were causing the commotion, but a short, seedy-looking man dressed in striped pyjamas with a nightcap on his head. He looked a very irate man; his gills were seething with indignation.
‘Is Signor Harding there?’ the man asked, speaking with a strong Italian accent.
‘No,’ said Paul, annoyed at having his sleep disturbed. ‘What do you think you’re doing, banging on the door at this time of night?’
The man became visibly angrier and broke into loud raving.
‘You’d better be off,’ said Paul, his mirth having vanished.
‘Is Signor Harding there?’ the man demanded.
‘No,’ said Paul, slamming the door in the man’s face.
The man continued pounding on the door. Paul opened it again. ‘You’d better be off,’ he shouted.
The man’s response was to give Paul a hard kick on his shin with a slippered foot while gulping the words ‘the noise’.
‘Why, you cheeky so and so!’ cried Paul, punching the man in the face with his uninjured hand. The man’s flesh yielded to the blow, but Paul didn’t wait to find out what he would do next. Instead he slammed the door and returned to the lounge.
He was now compelled to admit the radio was loud. It blared, it screeched, it seemed to unfurl the membranes in his ears and mind. A feeling of sickness moved through his body as he rushed to turn it off. When it was off he could still hear the man banging at the door, shouting abuse like some mad warlock confronting annihilation. Paul didn’t know what to do. Some people acted very strangely. Why I could murder him, he’ll be waking up the whole building. In the end he decided to ignore the man. He’d get tired of banging. And he shut the lounge door to kill the sound.
How peaceful it seemed without all that banging. He lay down on Reg’s sofa and put his feet up on one of its arms, worn out by his day. He looked at his watch: it was a quarter past two. He couldn’t believe it; it seemed as if a year had passed since he’d last slept. And his eyes remained open for only a couple of minutes more.
But even though he slept until quite late it was mostly fragmentary sleep. The sofa was uncomfortable and a feeling of hangover persisted, making him feel extremely irritable. Moreover, the faces of many people haunted his sleep. Besides Sue and Ricky, who were often there, there were the Hardings, especially Reg, who appeared from time to time dressed in striped pyjamas with a nightcap on his head. In his hand he carried the inevitable glass of whisky, from which he took generous swigs, while waving his arms and feet about frantically. Paul woke again and again, roaring out with laughter, before drifting back to sleep feeling depressed.
After the sun had long risen and the room had grown lighter, he felt a smaller need for sleep. It was time to get up. So just before nine he made his way to the bathroom to freshen up. He removed the bandage from his hand, feeling pleased the cuts weren’t serious, and, coming back to the lounge to collect a few items, heard knocking at the front door. He went to answer it, thinking it must be Cecily and Reg, and found he was right.
‘Hello,’ he said cheerfully.
‘Hello, Paul,’ said Cecily with something like anxiety in her voice. She never smiled. Reg just grunted.
The Hardings entered their flat.
‘Did you enjoy yourselves?’
Cecily never answered his question, but instead looked him grimly in the face.
‘Paul, whatever’s been going on?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘With Signor Grimaldi downstairs?’
‘Signor Grimaldi? Oh, you mean that fellow. Euh, he came up here to pick a fight.’
‘What!’ exclaimed Cecily in amazement.
‘He came up here and started using abusive language, then kicked me. So I gave him a well-deserved punch.’
‘Because of the radio?’ interposed Reg perceptively.
‘Really, Paul!’ cried Cecily.
‘I’m sorry. He startled me.’
‘Well, there might be some trouble because he intends going to the police,’ said Reg. ‘I’d better go and see him after Paul’s given us the full story.’
Paul proceeded to give his own highly coloured account of Signor Grimaldi’s Latin way of complaining. Cecily and Reg listened attentively, before Reg set off downstairs to try to pacify his irate neighbour.
Cecily decided to make a cup of tea and told Paul to sit in the lounge. But she hadn’t gone far before she noticed her prize vase missing from its allotted position on the small table beside the lounge door. She asked where it was. Perhaps Angela had taken it from its accustomed place to clean it.
‘I’m afraid not,’ said Paul.
‘What?’ cried Cecily, looking at him frantically.
‘I’m afraid it’s.....broken.’
‘Broken? It can’t be?’ said Cecily, hastening towards the table to see whether it had actually gone.
Paul looked at her, but said nothing.
‘It can’t be broken!’ she said, holding back her tears. ‘It can’t be. What would mother say?’ (Mother had been gone for nineteen years.)
‘There was an accident.’
‘Yes. Ricky Stanbrook collapsed. He came to see me yesterday afternoon, felt unwell and keeled over. I knocked the vase off the table when I went to fetch him some water. The pieces are in the kitchen.’
‘How could you be so clumsy!’ shouted Cecily, suddenly furious with him. ‘You ought to take more care of other people’s things. I don’t know what Reggie’s going to say. It’s our most treasured possession.’
Paul was sorry, but he said nothing. Words were beyond him. After all he hadn’t done it on purpose. It could have happened to anyone.
Cecily rushed to the kitchen to inspect the pieces which Angela had placed in a large corn flakes box. Cecily looked at the pieces with tear-filled eyes which implored them to come together again. But grieving was useless. And while she inspected the remnants of her vase she never stopped commiserating with herself; it was as if nothing worse could have happened.
And it was not Cecily but Reg who discovered the broken pane of glass. After he had come back from downstairs, he went straight to the lounge expecting to find Cecily there, before coming to the kitchen to tell her about the broken window pane -only to be shocked at finding the antique Byzantine vase smashed into hundreds of small pieces. His face passed through a sequence of expressions as he looked at the remnants. First he looked amazed, as if he could have been knocked down by a feather; then he looked concerned; then it looked as if tears would burst forth from his puffy eye bags; then he was furious. His face went a deep crimson and the ends of his moustache turned snow white.
‘Cecily!’ bellowed the Wing Commander.
‘Oh, Reggie!’ cried Cecily, as they crowded around a fitted cupboard on which the large corn flakes box stood.
‘How the devil did this happen?’ he shouted.
Cecily gave a very confused account of what Paul had said. By the time she came to the end of her explanation Reg looked as if he would take leave of his senses.
‘That man,’ presumably referring to Stanbrook, ‘has the cheek, the impudence to come to my flat and drink my whisky -yes, my whisky- and then collapse on my floor, breaking a window pane in the process. Not satisfied with that he destroys my priceless vase. I’ll make him pay for this.’
‘I broke the pane.....and the vase,’ said Paul, owning up manfully.
‘You.....you broke the vase and the window pane and emptied my whisky bottles,’ roared Reg. ‘And you insulted and assaulted the man from downstairs?’
‘I suppose you think that’s gratitude?’
Reg banged a heavy military fist on the top of the cupboard.
‘They were accidents,’ said Paul, smarting with indignation.
‘Maybe the damage is, but not the punching, and both show a damned lack of consideration for the property and feelings of others.’
‘What did Signor Grimaldi have to say?’ inquired Cecily.
‘That Paul punched him in the face and that he was going to see his lawyer. The poor man’s face is swollen. It looks ghastly.....absolutely ghastly’.
Paul felt the shock of realization of what he had done passing through him. He tried to console himself with the thought that he still had Sue. She still loved him.
‘I think we should all be sensible,’ he suggested stoically, as he moved away from the cupboard.
‘Yes, so we should,’ said Cecily more calmly, as the thought of Agnes Martin, Paul’s mother, crossed her mind.
Reg fell silent as he stood beside the cupboard peering into the large corn flakes box.
Cecily composed herself, put the kettle on and told Paul to go and sit in the lounge. Paul did as he was told. Rubbing two painful hands together, he waited for tea to be served.