Did you know Ilina? She used to come here all the time and sit with us after we had concluded our morning practice, and then again in the evenings when we were all played out for the day. Surely you must have seen her; she sat with us and we chatted, and then sometimes she went with us to the Mexican bar where we had drinks and chatted some more. Then last week she went home. We went to see her off, the three of us. Afterwards we went to the platform that they have for watching the planes, and a little later the big plane climbed the sky with Ilina. We recognised it by the white and gold sign on its fin that looked like the scroll on a violin. It rapidly became smaller until it was just a speck in the sky, and we wondered if the plane would ever be the same for having carried her on that day.
She was such a slight thing, Ilina. The first time I met her, and she said that she was a pianist, my first thought was that here was a person who by all rights should never have been allowed to become a pianist. The harp would have been a much better choice for her, or the flute. And as though she knew it too she made up for it by only playing very delicate pieces – little whispers by Chopin and Debussy that sounded the same way as Ilina when she spoke.
All three of us were already there, the very first time that we met her: Timo, who played the double bass; Julie, who played the cello, and I, who have chosen the violin, or maybe it chose me, I don’t know. In any case, we had just entered the school under the stone awning and there she was, holding a piece of paper and looking at us quizzically.
‘Where might I post a note?’ she asked us, and we went with her to the board and helped her to find a prominent place for her little note. New foreign student, it read, looking for friends. Later, when Ilina was practising the Chopin somewhere upstairs, Timo and I came down again and ripped one of the little slips from the paper that had her number on it, and the same evening we called her and that’s how we became very good friends.
It was a careless summer that first one we spent with Ilina. None of us had any money to fly home and so we all stayed while the rest of the students went away to see their families. For almost three months the town stood empty like that except for the very old who were there year-round, and the four of us, and perhaps half a dozen others who had stayed behind too but who we never saw except for very rare occasions. It was that way every time the school year ended; in our town there was only the university and the students who lived near it, while up in the sprawling hills there were the retired people who only came down to do their shopping, to go to the marketplace on Sunday mornings, and once in a while for the concerts that the students performed in the big auditorium at the university. These concerts were immensely popular among the old people who came down from the hills in large numbers to attend them, the women wearing fancy outfits and the men wearing hats as though a procession of some kind were underway. There were only a few students in the audience; we had been listening to the pieces all year long from behind closed doors.
In the summer there were no concerts except by visiting artists who had no affiliation with the university at all. Even those were seldom. Most of the time the town felt abandoned. For the first few days, as a rule, absolutely nothing happened. It was as if the whole town had exhaled and, by doing so, expelled all the students. Then, slowly, as though unsure whether we had all really gone, the old people came down from the hills and some sort of life filled the streets again. Yet the atmosphere remained pleasantly subdued compared to the buzz the students created when we were all there. Sometimes the old folks looked at us in a funny way when they spotted us sitting at the marble fountain or buying ice cream or just walking through the streets; it wasn’t a hostile look, by any means, but our presence clearly puzzled them, as though we had somehow missed the bell and weren’t supposed to be there at all anymore.
We vowed that we wouldn’t practise for an entire month. That was the plan, though we didn’t know what else we should do. In general, there was very little to do there except wake up late and enjoy the lightness of everything outside and perhaps to go into a few of the shops. The shops, though, catered to the elderly community in the summer, and their grandchildren who sometimes visited them, and we began to feel again like intruders. We soon tired of the shops.
Then one day I walked by the university and heard the sounds of piano playing. It was Ilina, playing a new étude by Chopin. She had taken a room on the third floor and opened the window just slightly. I stood under the awning and the Chopin mingled well with the birds chirping and with the air that had just the right temperature for it, too: warm but not overly so, with a gentle breeze that miraculously turned the hard stone of the old university into something much lighter. I could even hear the fountain bubbling away in the distance and creating a lovely counterpoint, though in all fairness I shouldn’t have been able to hear it at all; it was too far away. That was the kind of day it was though, and I am convinced that it was the fountain that I had heard.
A few days later we had all started our practice again. *******
I remember that summer so well. We lived like it was a never-ending rondo. We adorned our lives with quaint little ornaments. Everything, even our thoughts, seemed to run in three-four time. We met up every evening at the Mexican bar and drank fluffy drinks and could hardly believe that the day had passed already. The next day everything was the same all over again. That year, more than most, the summer appeared never to run out of days; it seemed incapable of it. Like a strange fountain from which they bubbled forth, there was an infinite supply of these days that were all the same and which passed one after the other in a gently swinging loop.
And on every one of those perfect, completely identical days Ilina played the Chopin. The window of her room on the third floor was always half open to let the breeze in. It wasn’t just her, although maybe she had been the catalyst, who knows. In time all of us found our summer pieces. It was perhaps easiest for me, for the repertoire of the violin is a treasure- trove of just such pieces. My choice on most days fell on Kreisler whose miniature reveries I decided were perfect for the occasion: they were short and lovely enough that I could very quickly learn to play them by heart, so that instead of gazing at the music I could let my eye wander. I had taken a room on the fourth floor with a view of the courtyard and the stone awning and the big trees that reached almost as high as my window, though the window remained closed.
It was slightly more difficult for Julie. In the end she settled for Bach, which is perfect for all seasons after all, while Timo, in a piece by Hindemith, was patiently teaching his enormous bass to sound like a flute; day by day he came closer.
It is quite easy to imagine how it would have gone on like that indefinitely, and that nothing might have disturbed the chain of perfect summer days. We were inside the loop, you see, and the loop was benevolent towards us, and if we hadn’t put an end to it ourselves, there might have been no end at all; it is impossible to know, of course, but that’s what I’ve come to believe in any case. Nonetheless we saw to it that it didn’t happen quite that way. We had to ruin it.
Again it was Ilina who became the catalyst for change by entering her name in the prestigious Busoni competition. I learned of it as I walked under the awning and looked up at the window on the third floor. I was sure that Ilina must have been there for hours as I was quite late. The window was open but it wasn’t Chopin at all that emerged from it but a meandering tune that sounded vaguely familiar. Maybe I had heard it before, but I cannot be certain now. It was a wistful little tune that seemed to go on forever in a strangely halting way, as though making doubly sure each note was safe to walk on. There were many passages like that in Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze, which is what Ilina was playing. Listening to it made me feel as though I was walking with my head slightly tilted to one side; I cannot describe it any better than that. Our lives were soon tilting as well, and the first indication of it was the Davidsbündlertänze as they trickled down onto the courtyard that morning.
None of us were able to hold on to our summer pieces, though we tried. I have to believe that we tried.
Timo took a job as a substitute player in an orchestra where they were playing only Mahler for the rest of the year. He later swore that he hadn’t known this and that by the time he had signed the contract it was too late. I believe him, because it sounds just like him with his careless ways. It was different for Julie and me, though not by much. We made an effort but it was short-lived; the dice were stacked against us from the beginning.
For our first chamber music lesson of the new school year we arrived with our Haydn and Mozart quartets in hand – effective weapons, we thought, against the loss we all felt now that the summer had come to an end. Our teacher, Ernst Hahne, listened to us with a knowing expression. He said very kind things about our playing. Then he smiled sympathetically and without ceremony handed us Schubert’s Death and the Maiden. Come back with the first movement next week, he said.
Meanwhile, Ilina played the Davidsbündlertänze for many hours each day in her room on the third floor.
There was something inexorable about Hahne’s insistence on the Schubert. Julie and I both tried to dissuade him: Julie brought it up when she met him in the car park one day, and I knocked on his door the following afternoon. We were stonewalled. This is the piece you need to play now, he said, looking at me solemnly. He said the same thing to Julie. We gave in.
The quartet met every day. We chose one of the big rooms on the third floor, only two doors away from where Ilina was practising the Davidsbündlertänze. Each morning, however early we arrived, she was there first. We hardly saw her anymore. She didn’t come to lunch, and in the evenings when we tried to recreate our summer days at the Mexican bar (inside now, for it had begun to be noticeably cooler already and the wind had picked up), she almost never joined us.
Who knows how these things happen. All I know is that we met every day, that we practised and practised, and that Hahne thought that the Schubert was getting on nicely. He really seemed very pleased with us. Once, after we had played the third movement for him, he even suggested that we play it in a concert in the winter. I thought that it was a truly terrible idea. My hairs stood on end just thinking about it, but I never breathed a word of my reservations.
I also noticed how we had begun to arrive very early each morning. Almost wordlessly, we unpacked our instruments, tuned, and began to work very earnestly but without cheer until lunchtime when we would rest for an hour or two. Then we would all work quietly on our own before reconvening in the early evening. We were so exhausted on most days
that we even stopped going to the Mexican bar, and the few times that we went I can hardly remember now, for we never talked. The truth is that a greyness had seeped into our lives. Julie thought that it was the weather which, just as in summer, was again producing identical days, although now they were made of rolling cloud and weak light.
I blamed the Schubert.
Perhaps we should have put up more of a fight. We could have marched into Hahne’s room and demanded to play the Haydn, all four of us, not taking no for an answer. Then Hahne, seeing our resolve, would simply have had to accept it. He would have had to smile and say very well, play the Haydn in the concert, it’s all the same to me, and we would have returned to him the Schubert that was causing all the greyness, and just maybe things would have turned out different. But the truth is that we didn’t do those things – and that, very likely, we couldn’t. Instead, we continued each day to make progress with the Schubert and to please Hahne more with each lesson. Before long we were already well into the fourth and last movement, which was the most difficult of them all. It would occupy us for a few more weeks still. Soon, Hahne said, very soon you will be ready to play it.
And I felt it, too. That it would not be long now.
The cancer was terminal, they said. Ilina had two months, maybe three, maybe as little as six weeks. We only heard the thump in the room two doors away, and when we heard it we paused with our bows in mid-air. It wasn’t yet noon. We looked at each other and perhaps at that moment we already knew what had happened and what our role had been in it. Then the silence was broken and in a hurry we all laid down our instruments on the floor, not even bothering to put them in their cases, and went out to investigate. What we found was a room where the greyness was so thick that it could be felt like a sauce on the walls and on the floor where it was almost impossible to walk.
There are instances when one has to be told, like a child, what one has done. Look here, someone will say and point out the obvious. This is how it used to be, and look how it is now. See what you’ve done? How it happened? And yes, I saw it now, what had happened – what we had done. Hahne was standing in the middle of the room as he explained it all to me. His voice was even. He wasn’t angry. He didn’t blame us, he said. But I blamed us, for now I was certain that we had known all along whom we had been chasing when we played the Schubert. I knew that day after day we had conjured the wild bone man, the terrible bony king, and sent him roaming out in the hallways where he was free to explore the adjoining rooms. Every day, in that room two doors away, he had found Ilina.
The doctors never mentioned the Schubert, though I wholly expected them to. I felt so guilty that I thought: at any moment now they will come to arrest us all. I even started wishing for it, so that it could all be over and everyone would know what happened and they would mete out to us the punishment we deserved.
What can we do, I asked Hahne. I even pleaded with him to tell me, but he was unmoved. There is only one thing left you can do now, he said, and I listened intently and did exactly as he told me.
The concert took place on a dull day in November. We had put up notices all over town and the old people flocked down from the hills. Again it was horribly like a procession, though they didn’t know the reason for the concert. I played the Kreisler. Julie played several suites by Bach, and damned if Timo didn’t sound exactly like a flute in the Hindemith.
From the proceeds we bought the plane ticket, and we were all there on the day when Ilina went home. I hope that she was already listening to the Haydn on her earphones when the plane took off, and that the Haydn drowned out for her the sound of the plane, and the sound that the cancer made in her skin. I hope that the Haydn was strong enough to drown out the Schubert. That is what I thought about when I watched the plane become smaller and smaller, the plane whose fin looked so much like the scroll of a violin.