‘Hm?’ you said. ‘What did you say?’
All evening, I’d been trying and failing to raise it. I’d been gulping air whenever conversation lulled, ready-but-not-ready to blurt it out. I’d been starting the sentence and then losing my nerve, diverting to something innocuous. It had been on the tip of my tongue the whole time, but I’d been biting it. And when I finally built up the courage to tell you, you didn’t hear what I said.
We’d finished dinner. You were washing up.
I repeated myself. ‘I want to go to Warsaw.’
You flipped a dirty plate over in the water and slid the sponge across it.
Bubbles slid off the white ridges of the bottom of the dish.
I clarified. ‘I’m going, in fact. To Warsaw. This weekend. I already booked the flight.’
You slotted the plate into the drying rack and wiped your hands on a tea towel. Then, finally, you turned around.
‘Why?’ you said. I was convinced you’d look annoyed. Instead, you only looked bemused.
It was absolutely the right question to ask.
We both knew there were a lot of reasons why I shouldn’t go to Warsaw. Among them: we had already made plans to see friends that weekend; we were supposed to be saving money; I was a nervous traveller who, even on our honeymoon, got homesick and wanted to leave early; I had no sense of direction and was always getting lost; I had no connection to Warsaw and had never previously mentioned a desire to go; we had a lot to do around the house to get it ready for the baby; you were, at that point, twenty-one weeks pregnant and feeling tired all the time.
‘Why?’ you said again.
I joined you at the sink, sliding my wine glass into the washing up bowl. ‘I want to do it before the baby comes. Just a quick trip. Just a weekend.’
Air bubbled up from the wine glass, then it sank below the froth of fairy liquid.
What I said was, ‘I want to listen to Chopin’s heart.’
I had been learning the piano, at that point, for ten years. I started casually, quite soon after we got fake-married. I had just turned twenty-four and you were still a graduate student, writing your PhD on American road trip narratives. We lived in a top-floor flat that got too hot in summer and I had a job as an assistant manager at a café inside a petrol station just outside of town. Every day I would drive to work, leaving you at your desk at the window, and I’d come back to find you still there, head down. The post would be unopened on the doormat, the carpet flecked with moulted fur from the elderly Siamese cat we inherited from your grandmother. I would kiss the top of your head and retreat into the bedroom to practise.
I taught myself using online tutorials and an electric keyboard balanced on the ironing board. It was the kind that came with sound effects: cymbals, a drumbeat. There was a button you could press to play the entirety of The Moonlight Sonata. I wore headphones so I didn’t disturb you, and practised scales, shaky and unsure: C major, G major, D major. Arpeggios. I tried stretching my fingers out to span an octave, then further. I wished my hands were bigger. It didn’t feel important, but it didn’t feel unimportant either.
When you asked me why I wanted to play the piano I was furious, full of spluttered indignation. Look what you have, I wanted to say. You have all those American road trips to think about: Kerouac and Steinbeck and Route 66 and Thelma and Louise. Sometimes when I get home you don’t even look up from what you’re writing! And what do I have? Car wash tokens and watery instant cappuccinos and bouquets of carnations wilting outside the kiosk and everything smelling of petrol, even things that are nothing to do with petrol, even me. What I actually said was something about a creative outlet.
For my twenty-fifth birthday, you gave me an electric piano with weighted keys, designed to respond to touch like real ivory. It had a sustain pedal that plugged in at the back. You asked to hear me play. I said I wasn’t ready.
For my twenty-sixth birthday, you gave me a piano stool, velvety as a ring box. You opened the lid and it was like you were proposing all over again. Inside was a stash of old sheet music you said had been there when you bought it. Crisp, dusty pages of Mozart. Bach. Debussy. Chopin’s Nocturnes. I stared at the notes: semiquavers crushed between the neat lines of the staves like ants emerging from a crack in the pavement. I could play none of it: my fingers too slow, my brain too sluggish.
When you finished your doctorate, you were offered a job at a university on the other side of the country. We packed up the house: pot plants; all the clothes we’d forgotten we owned and which probably didn’t fit us anymore; the books you had written about in your thesis; the little round cat bed, unused since the Siamese cat died, but which we should keep, you said, because we might get kittens. On moving day, I carried the keyboard out to the van and you put your hand on my arm and said, ‘No need to bring that.’ I was ready to argue, but you carried on: ‘There’s a surprise waiting for you in the new house.’ I left the keyboard on the pavement.
The surprise in the new house was a rickety, old upright with red candle wax stains down the side. The A flat below middle C was permanently stuck down. It was beautiful. I almost cried. I loved it for its haphazardness, for its weight and clout and not-plugged-in-ness. Its keys were yellowed, like a smoker’s smile.
I was twenty-nine by then, had been playing for five years and had mastered the basics. I could handle some Mozart sonatas and a few simple Bach pieces. I could be relied upon to accompany the singing of ‘Happy Birthday’ at parties. You had a salary from the university, and I got a job as the manager of a café at a National Trust property; it meant I could afford a piano teacher, who came to the house for an hour every Tuesday morning and told me my technique was all wrong, that we would have to start from scratch, all the way back to the C major scale.
Then same-sex marriage was legalised and we got real-married. I played an arrangement of ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ by Etta James on the grand piano in the town hall. At the reception, you had too much champagne. You got giggly. You whispered, ‘I want a baby. Let’s have a baby.’
After two years of lessons, my piano teacher let me open the crinkled copy of Chopin’s Nocturnes and play the easiest one: No. 2 in E flat, Op. 9.
When I finally mastered it, you wandered in from your study and lingered in the doorway to listen. By then, you were three months pregnant with our child, just beginning to show: light streaming in behind you and your silhouette ridiculous, too beautiful, too much to bear.
At the airport I stood, foolishly, beneath the signs that said ‘Departures’ and ‘Arrivals’. I was departing for Warsaw from the airport at which I had just arrived. I had no sense at all of which I should report to. This was the sort of thing you knew. Whenever we’d travelled before, I had followed you unthinkingly, without noticing there had ever been a choice about where to walk.
The phrase ‘new arrival’ lodged itself in my head. It was the name of the magazine they kept in the waiting room at the fertility clinic: New Arrivals. Each edition had a different pink-cheeked, beaming baby on the cover. There were headlines like, ‘Twelve fertility myths debunked!’ and ‘Is freezing embryos the future of IVF?’ You would flick through them and point at things you thought were helpful or stupid, and then a nurse would call us in.
New arrival. The phrase made me think of the baby as coming from somewhere. As though the baby was, at present, sitting in the departure lounge of a faraway airport, rather than doing what it definitely was doing: unfurling, twitchily, right there inside you.
This train of thought made me certain – almost certain – that I should follow the ‘departures’ sign. I set off in that direction, then doubted myself and asked a woman in a fluorescent jacket. She looked me up and down. I felt self-conscious, suddenly, about my shoes, which were old, the sole coming loose on the left. Her expression said: you should know that; who doesn’t know that? Her face said: you should just give up on whatever this scheme is and go home. Then she waved me on in the direction I’d been heading.
This scheme was, at most, a blip. A research trip (though you might ask, reasonably enough, what the purpose of the research was; what book did I think I was writing; what conference would hear my academic paper). I tried to think of it, at the time, as a weekend away: the thing that people who aren’t me might call me time. It was reasonable, wasn’t it, as motherhood approached with all its attendant responsibilities, to want to take a mini break, to visit the home of a composer whose music I loved? Other people did similar things: Stratford-upon-Avon; Oscar Wilde’s tomb in Père Lachaise cemetery peppered with lipstick kisses. Not so strange, then, to want to visit the city of Chopin’s birth. A little stranger, I will admit: the heart thing.
Now, years later, you sometimes refer to it as, ‘that time you left when I was pregnant.’ You say it gruffly, a little morosely: ‘It was a while after that time you left.’ Or, ‘It was around the time you went away.’ And it’s true there was a moment when I left, standing there confused beneath the airport signs, an inexperienced traveller who had never before gone anywhere by myself, shuffling through security towards the gate. But from the moment the plane took off for Warsaw, as soon as the wheels no longer touched the runway and there was thin air below and around and above, and I had never been more alone in my entire life and all I could think about was things inside of other things, me inside the plane inside the air, Chopin’s heart inside a jar inside a brick wall inside Poland and the baby inside you inside my brain? From that moment on, all I did was come back to you.
When I told you the heart plan, after all the initial ‘why’s’, you had googled, ‘where is Chopin buried’ and the internet had told you he was buried in Paris. ‘Look,’ you had said, ‘he’s in Paris. You can take the train. You could go for the day.’ And I’d had to explain to you – and in explaining it notice the weirdness of it all over again – that, yes, Chopin was buried in Paris, but his heart, his literal heart, was in Warsaw. Which was when, yet again, you were forced to ask why.
The first answer is that Chopin, on his deathbed, was seized by a patriotic frenzy, and expressed the wish that wherever his body ended up, his heart be returned to his homeland. In this version, the request is borne of love for his country. I imagine a kind of homesickness in Chopin’s bones, growing more intense the closer he came to death. A sense of never being able to sit comfortably; fidgeting, itching for home, for Poland, a country whose name in English gets tangled in my brain with his own – Poland, Chopin, Cho-Poland – and which in Polish sounds like music, a kind of dance: Polska, polka. Did Chopin ever write a polka, I google, and learn that the Polka in C minor, posthumously attributed to Chopin, was most likely written by his pupil Charlotte de Rothschild. I fall down a rabbit hole of internet searches; I listen to the polka on repeat, trying to recognise Chopin in it, as though I would be the one, finally, to crack the case. Hours later I emerge, unsure what, if anything, I was looking for.
A second answer: Chopin, in his final weeks, developed a terrible fear of being buried alive. As his illness worsened, the fear increased until he was dreaming about it, afraid even to shut his eyes. How awful, he thought, to be trapped inside something like that, to be cut off from the whole world, suspended in the dark and hammering to get out, never knowing whether anyone was there. (‘This has nothing to do with the baby, by the way,’ I said.) To ensure he wouldn’t wake up underground, Chopin requested his heart be taken from his body before he was buried. And so when he died, his sister, Ludwika Jędrzejewicz, removed the heart and placed it in a jar of cognac. She smuggled it, under her cloak, back to Warsaw, where it was eventually interred at the Holy Cross Church on Krakowskie Przedmieście.
The third answer is that Ludwika Jędrzejewicz was crazy.
In the taxi from Warsaw airport, the radio was playing a Polish pop song. I tried and failed to get a sense of the meaning of the words; I noticed – guessed – that it was in G major; I imagined it was a love song, because most songs are. When the driver turned it off, what was left was the hum of the engine, possibly F sharp. ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘you can turn it back on.’ I mimed twisting a dial, as though that were still how radios worked, but by then we were drawing up outside my hotel and the driver was saying something in Polish which I guessed was, ‘You are here.’ I looked out of the window: I was there. I had been so preoccupied with the music that I’d barely noticed the city.
In the hotel lobby, there was a sculpture: a large glass vase, and inside it, neon strands twisting like branches, brittle. The light emitted a faint, persistent buzz, as though it was trying to say something: psst, it said, psst, psst, over here. It sounded as though an insect were trapped inside the glass, frantic wings strumming the surface.
I checked in. I filled out the form with my name and address. Behind me, I could hear the neon whispering.
‘Are you here for work, or for a vacation?’ the man behind the desk asked.
‘Work,’ I said.
‘Work’ shorthand for: I am working something out. ‘Work’ meaning: I am working on myself. ‘Work’ as in: I am freaking out, my wife is pregnant, and by focusing on a very specific task like this one, however peculiar and ostensibly pointless, I am hoping to reassure myself that I can handle all of this and God I hope it works.
In my room, I changed my shoes, grabbed the guidebook I had bought at the airport. I took out my phone to text you – Safely arrived! – and slid it back into my pocket before I could think too much about new arrivals again. Then I hurried to leave. I did not pause to shower, or to lie on my back on the bed and stare at the high ceiling above it. I did not listen to the psst, psst of the neon light in the lobby as I passed it, yet again, to step into a valve of the revolving door. I emerged from the hotel onto the bright street, and I began to walk through Warsaw, towards Chopin’s heart.
I listened out for it harder than I looked, harder than I felt the cobbles underfoot or the hot light on my face: Chopin’s heartbeat in the footsteps of passers-by, tourists and tour guides, a woman hand in hand with a little girl, a man holding up a bunch of big red heart-shaped helium balloons in a square next to a boy selling bread rolls, which were nestled together on a trolley, each one a little heart, plump and primed. There was a spring in my step, my pulse rising. Take heart! I thought, as I walked and walked and snippets of conversation in Polish floated past me and I understood nothing but believed with all my heart that I was nearing Chopin’s heart, was being drawn nearer to it, by it.
I turned down an alley: sunlit buildings chequered with dark doorways like piano keys. A woman in one of the houses was singing. A child laughed. A car horn sounded.
The guidebook said I was just under a mile away from where I was meant to be.
The guidebook said the buildings I was standing next to had all been destroyed in the Second World War and had been reconstructed based on cityscapes by the eighteenth-century Italian painter Bernardo Bellotto. I thought of you saying the baby would be a ‘new start’ and how that had terrified me: how I had tried to find the words to tell you I didn’t want anything to change, I loved you as you were, I loved everything as it was. I watched your stomach round, listened to your commentary each morning on how hard it was to do up your jeans, and then I bought you different jeans. My own stomach was the same as ever: unextended, empty. I didn’t know which alarmed me more: how fast everything was happening, or that nothing was happening to me.
I made a mental note to tell you about the reconstruction of Old Warsaw, how things could be entirely new and still look exactly the same.
The guidebook said that in many cases, only the fronts of the destroyed buildings had been restored. Inside, they were modern: high ceilings; clean lines. A façade of continuity. Enormous change behind the scenes. The author of the guidebook suggested this was the best of both worlds.
The jar of Chopin’s heart-in-cognac didn’t have a fixed abode until thirty years after his death. My internet searches revealed no information about where it was in those three decades. I imagined it gathering dust at the back of a cupboard, beside the kinds of things that are put away and forgotten: pickled lemons, out-of-date pasta sauce, supermarket panettone from several Christmases ago. Or perhaps it wasn’t hidden at all. I pictured the heart wandering, half-lost like I was, through the streets of Warsaw, searching for a place to end up.
In 1879, after years of nowhere-ness, it found a home in the Holy Cross Church, where it was placed behind a stone bust of Chopin’s face, and the words, ‘Gdzie skarb twój, tam i serce twoje,’ taken from the Book of Matthew: ‘Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’ This is pleasing for two reasons. The first is that when I initially read it I thought it was saying that Chopin’s heart is treasure, though on second reading that’s not right. The second is that it’s not clear who the ‘you’ is: it could mean Chopin himself, could mean that Poland is his treasure and that his heart is with Poland (it probably does mean this but what if it doesn’t?); it could mean me: where my treasure is, there will my heart be also. In which case: is my treasure Chopin’s heart, or is Chopin’s heart my heart?
And then, eventually, the Nazis took it. In Occupied Poland, performances of Chopin’s music were prohibited. The statue of Chopin in Warsaw’s Łazienki Park was blown up. Chopin’s heart, planted deep inside the Holy Cross Church, was removed by Nazi officials. It was held by a high-ranking SS commander called Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski who professed to love Chopin, who was only doing what was best, for Chopin and for everyone, for safekeeping.
When the heart was returned to the church, it was ninety-six years since Chopin had died. Flags lined the route the heart took. People gathered to throw flowers.
By the time I found the Holy Cross Church, I was overheated from the walk, sweaty and a little dusty. There had been no flags to show me where to go, no garlands; the map bore no relation at all to what I could see around me. It had taken me three times as long as it should.
The air in the church was thickly cool, and my skin prickled. A choir was rehearsing. Everywhere: the echoey chill of the singers’ voices. And it was as though the space was full of water, or mud; as though I was submerged in a swimming pool. It was hard to move forwards, but hard, too, to go back. I waded down the steps towards the central aisle, and the music was so persistent I felt as though I couldn’t see: not even the great gleaming altar, or the white walls or the dark pews or the shadows everywhere. I blinked. I took a breath.
I didn’t recognise what they were singing: it swelled and ebbed away and then interrupted itself, starting all over again. The sound was crisp. It seemed to have edges, like the fine glass of a neon tube: you could crack it; it might shatter. And I wished they would stop singing, wished they would snap their lips together and cut the sound off mid-flow. Because they were drowning out the real music; they were making it impossible to hear what I had come all that way to hear.
I found the heart – or rather, the pillar in which the heart was – exactly as I had seen it in pictures: dark grey stone against light grey stone, and in neat black lettering, as though none of this was strange:
TU SPOCZYWA SERCE
HERE RESTS THE HEART
I wanted to reach up and pick the letters off the wall. I wanted to peel them away from the stone one by one and tuck them into the back pocket of my jeans. I didn’t like the phrase Here rests the heart. I didn’t like the word rests. I wanted to cross out the word rests and replace it, in permanent marker scrawled above, beats. Here beats the heart of Frederick Chopin. I pressed a hand against my own heart and thought here beats the heart of me.
If only the choir would stop singing, I thought, I would hear it. My heart. Chopin’s heart.
At the hospital, the sonographer doing your ultrasound seemed unimpressed by the magic she was performing. She slid the probe over your domed stomach, and from a machine resting on the trolley by the bed, the sound of the baby’s heart blared: rubbery, persistent, as though someone were massaging two balloons together.
‘It sounds like balloons,’ I said.
You said, ‘It sounds like soldiers marching,’ and then I heard it that way, too: hundreds of footsteps in time, a little too fast to be sanguine, rushing towards something or fleeing something else.
There was an army marching, invisibly, behind the smooth wall of your skin. You seemed transformed, as the heartbeat continued to applaud us from the monitor, from a person into a surface, flattened and surprised, as strange and upside-down as a foetus. You didn’t notice whatever the look on my face was.
‘It’s a girl,’ the doctor said.
When it was over, you took fistfuls of tissues to wipe the gel from your stomach.
Later, when we got home, you were jubilant, as though you’d won a prize, and I retreated into the bedroom. I listened to Chopin’s ‘Nocturne Op. 9, No. 2’. I listened to ‘The Raindrop Prelude, Op. 28, No. 15’. I looked up videos of people playing Chopin online: beginners hesitantly picking out the melodies; virtuosos whose fingers seemed not to touch the keys. I listened to ‘Polonaise No. 6 in A flat’ on YouTube and read the comments underneath:
I wish Chopin had a youtube channel and uploaded new music every week.
This song has a huge problem! It ends!!
Is polonaise an instrument.
I thought: I don’t want to lose you. I don’t want to lose you. I don’t want to lose you.
When the Polonaise ended, I heard water rushing: you were running a bath.
I pressed my face against the cold stone between me and Chopin’s heart. The folds of my ear flattened; my cheek cooled. I pushed away the phrase: here rests the heart. Also the phrase: like getting blood from a stone. Also the phrase: I don’t want to lose you. I pushed away the sound of the choir singing, and the thought of your sleeping, oblivious face, and the thought of your expressionless stomach, bulging like an eyelid.
And what I heard was silence. What I heard was the sound of sedate, unmoveable stone; particles fixed in hard, grainy order. Nothing. I heard nothing at all.
Until, that is, I heard something.
I heard a low, persistent buzz: repetitive, insistent, pulsing. I felt certain I could feel it, too, tickling the pads of my fingers, reaching all the way down my back: the stone resonant, coming to life, purring like a cat.
I cut my breath off in my throat. I held on tighter, as though my life depended on it. The buzzing continued, on-off-on-off, slow.
Somebody nearby hissed at me. I tried to ignore it. I wanted to listen. A man approached and murmured, ‘Twój telefon dzwoni.’
I shook my head, tried to indicate I was busy.
‘Twój telefon,’ he said again, more forcefully. He pointed at me. He lifted a hand to the side of his face and extended the little finger and thumb. ‘Twój telefon.’
I closed my eyes, listened for one more second, then admitted I knew what he meant.
My phone was still ringing when I slid it out of the back pocket of my jeans, its face a luminous green and your name flashing on the screen. Then it stopped, and the phone said (2) missed calls. Both were from you. I looked up to thank the man, though what I felt was more like boiling rage – it was his fault, after all, that I could no longer feel what I was feeling before – but he was gone. I let myself lean against the pillar and breathed out. I called you back. The phone played a rippling sound as it waited for you to answer.
It was a case, I knew, of listening very carefully, as I had been ever since I’d arrived. Keep your eyes peeled was the phrase I had in mind, and what I was doing was peeling my ears and keeping them that way: open, expectant, exposed. A word might appear in a Polish sentence – telefon – that was recognisable. The neon might have a message to deliver. The stone might start to vibrate.
‘Hi,’ you said. ‘Hi. Can you hear me?’
‘The signal’s very bad,’ I whispered. ‘I’m in a church. The signal’s very bad.’ A tourist, standing very close, glared at me. She was holding a camera up. I was ruining her shot of Chopin’s heart. I waved at her to apologise, and in doing so let go of the pillar, was standing on my own.
‘The baby,’ you said, and then the phone crackled. ‘What? The baby what? Are you all right?’
‘Clicked,’ you said.
‘Ticked,’ you said.
‘What? I can’t hear you. The baby what?’
The line cleared.
‘Kicked,’ you said. ‘The baby kicked. She’s never done that before.’
‘Oh,’ I said, ‘oh,’ and I was thinking about how loud the baby was, suddenly, how urgent and imminent and potent and completely new she was, lurking behind the familiar façade of you. ‘I’m coming home now,’ I said. ‘Hello? Can you hear me? I said I’m coming home.’
‘Hello?’ you said. ‘Can you hear me?’
‘Hello?’ I said. ‘Can you hear me?’
The signal had cut out, and there was nothing on the other end of the line. I listened anyway, to the neon buzz, a quivering crackle. To the sound of things inside of other things, a heart in cognac, an insect trapped in glass. All the love I had for you was tucked neatly inside of me, and inside of you was all your everything, your lungs and blood and bones and spleen and all of your ideas, all of your self and all of what was about to happen to both of us, all of our future, unknowable and unstoppable and carrying us along with it, all of our daughter pulsing in the womb.
Nell Stevens is the author of Bleaker House and Mrs Gaskell and Me, which won the 2019 Somerset Maugham Award. She was shortlisted for the 2018 BBC National Short Story Award. Her writing has been published in The New York Times, Vogue, The Paris Review, The New York Review of Books, The Guardian, Granta and elsewhere. Her novel, Briefly, a Delicious Life, will be published by Picador in June 2022.
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