Ben sits down at the table to open the package he picked up in Upington. It took a lot of guts to go to the post office and present them with the slip of paper that released the package to his care. The large red stickers yelling Fragile! seemed to jump out at him, reminders of the frail nature of the instrument as well as his resolve to try again.
Getting rid of the bubble wrap and the Styrofoam, the violin and bow shines like new as he lifts them from the case. The luthier has done an excellent job. His violin. The precious instrument that shattered his dreams.
“They had great hopes for us,” he tells the violin, “but then Lori happened and the music stopped. I’m sorry.”
It sounds stupid to talk to a violin, even worse to apologise to it; and Ben has to smile quietly at himself. It’s a habit he developed over the years. Living alone as he does, the sound of his own voice is often the only sound around – except for the creaking of the corrugated roof as it heats up or cools down.
““Now you’ve even been re-stringed for me and set up, the bow has new hair and you look as good as new.” He tests the strings by plucking them unstopped, and makes a few turns on the fine-tuners to compensate for the new-string stretch. Then he plucks them again and is amazed at the flood of emotion the sound releases. After all these years of studiously ignoring the violin in the cupboard, he feels a strange, sweet elation building as he cradles the chin rest in his neck. He’s suddenly young again, a student of music, with dreams of becoming one of the greats.
His fingers try to find the right spots on the fingerboard, but the years of farming has robbed them of the instinctive movements to create the right notes. The bow, too, moves uneasily across the strings. His elation fades away into despair – he had been so stupid to think he’ll pick up where he left off. Boggel was wrong: he’ll have to start all over again. There was no question of resuming his career as a musician – he’s lost it all.
Ben walks over to the shelf where he stores his old books and music scores. Even the notes are foreign now. He has to think, like a grade one scholar, what the symbols mean. Yes, he thinks, that’s how I started. Working out each note; until after years the notes and the music came together to become one with him and the violin. It was so easy then…
He blows out the candle after he packed everything up again. It was stupid…a folly…a mistake.
When he falls asleep at last, the dream comes back. The two chairs and the table, the wine and the bread, the little stream and the flowers. And then, by the magic only dreams possess, Lori appears from the shadows to sit down at the table. She’s older – he notices – and the once-beautiful hands seem gnarled and deformed.
“It’s the piano, Ben. The piano did this to me. The black-and-white keys took me all over the world – I played in every major concert hall in five continents. People told me I was the best. Then they wanted more. And more. I played in cafes, hotels, casinos, opera houses, convention centres, churches. I played until the music died within me, Ben. Oh, I could still strike the keys at the right time with the right pressure – but it became a science, not an art. It was something I had to do, not wanted to do. An obligation, not a pleasure.”
The dream-Lori reaches over to the wine, and fills up her glass. An old lady, dressed in the finest of jewellery and dresses, but even these are unable to hide her misery.
“We have only so much within each of us, Ben. Talent. Joy. Grief. Laughter. When we are born, we are issued with so many days and so much ability. It’s a limited supply, Ben. When it’s finished, it’s gone. It happens to so many professional people – celebrities in entertainment and sport – and then people call it burn-out. Some try drugs, like Elvis or that Jackson kid. Others drop out. Some commit suicide because they cannot live without the adoration of an audience.” She smiles wryly. “That’s what I am now. Burnt out. Finished. I don’t want to go on any more.
“But you, Ben, you haven’t used even a bit of your talent. Your quota is still full. Use it, Ben, but use it wisely. Do that for me, Ben. Please?”
He wakes up with a start. Yes, the dreams are always very realistic and life-like, but this one was exceptionally vivid. He can remember the sun of the greying hair, the spilled drop on the table cloth. She seemed so terribly sad! And she didn’t touch the wine…
While he waits for the Primus stove to heat up water for coffee, Ben sits down to stare at the violin case. Inside the beautiful wooden box are the violin, the bow, and his dreams. He’s kept it closed for so long… When the coffee is ready, he pours the aromatic black liquid in his old tin mug and waits for it to cool down.
Then, with infinite care, he lifts the violin to his neck. His right hand folds comfortably around the bow. His fingers rediscover the fingerboard. When the first notes fill his cottage, the first rays of sunlight reach over the horison to announce the new day.
Far away, in the Goldenes Kreuz Privatklinik in Vienna, Dr Grüber gratefully accepts a mug of coffee from the tired nurse.
“You tried everything, Doctor. Its was just too much for her.”
“Yes, I know. But she lingered on so long, I started to hope… It was almost as if she waited for something.”
“Now we’ll never know, will we? Even the note is strange. I will hear him play again. I wonder what that means.”
She watches the doctor walk down the long corridor, shoulders slumped in defeat. He’s so tired, she thinks. Fatigued. Burnt out.
“Get some rest,” she calls after him.
He doesn’t hear as the doors whoosh to close softly behind him. Death is such a sweet release from suffering – a new, clean beginning; the ultimate start-over. Life, he decides, is the playground we can mess up before the real game kicks off. His hand fumbles in the pocket of the white coat to find the reassuring coldness of the syringe. Yes, he thinks, sweet, sweet release. Bring it on…