Forcing the Strings

Louise and her date were waiting for a taxi one night when he turned suddenly and tried to kiss her.  When Louise said she wasn’t interested, the date said, ‘You’ve been playing me all night!’  She didn’t see him again but his remark troubled her.

Soon afterwards she met a man called Karl at a concert she was performing at in St Andrews Hall.  Karl was tall and with cropped hair.  He moved like a retired athlete still keeping in shape but not competing.  Perhaps he lived in an expensive apartment and was separated and with a daughter somewhere?  When he asked her out for dinner he played with his left ear as though jangled by nerves and Louise caught sight of a gold watch on his wrist.

Louise had always fantasied about a strong and confident man that wanted her but couldn’t have her.  She would lie awake at night, dreaming.  He would chase her, be on the verge of winning her, but in the same fantasy she would come to realise he was not good enough for her.

On the Saturday morning a few hours before their date Louise went shopping in charity shops for clothes.  She tried on skirts and blouses, new shoes and leggings, trying to find a combination she was comfortable in and also something that Karl might find attractive on her.  Eventually she went with her usual attire, a dress over a pair of jeans that made her look slimmer than she actually was.  She had always been conscious of her weight, of her wide hips and thighs.  

When she got home she put the dress on in front of a mirror and stood smoothing the creases with her palms and posing in various positions.  There wasn’t much light coming into the room and one of her pictures on the wall – the one of Coltrane – was not straight and hadn’t been straight for some weeks.

She was nervous about her date with Karl.  It made her want to pee or go for a run.  On the floor around her were scattered sheets of notation and above the lounge door hung a framed certificate from the Royal Academy of Music, graduate of 2007.  Louise found it difficult to imagine anyone else living here.  Still wearing the dress she went to her violin case in the corner of the room and took out her violin, then pushing her glasses up her nose she placed the rest under her chin, drew the bow across, retuned a string, and then played Lizst’s Allegro moderato.  

Each day after rehearsals Louise would come home and lose herself on the violin, lost in the notations of Bach and Beethoven; the cool wood under her chin, the feel of the bow as it brought to life the nuances of great compositions; it was the only intimacy she had ever really known.  Sometimes the music was more real to her than the people she encountered and she took from this both liberation and sadness.

Putting away her violin Louise unzipped the dress and then hooked it on a curtain rail – she was worried about moths, there was a nest of them somewhere in the building and they were coming up through the floorboards – but when she lifted the dress she caught the hem on a nail and the dress tore.  Swearing, she took the dress to the other side of the room, holding it at arms length as though it was contagious.  What now, she thought?  It struck her suddenly, she was in luck!  Her neighbour Alva, who lived across the hall, was a seamstress.

Alva was a short vibrant old lady who had probably survived a dozen near deaths.  She opened the door and peered at Louise over thick rimmed glasses.  She frowned as though suspicious of the intrusion and then her gaze landed on the dress and the flap of torn material and with a yank of her head she motioned for Louise to follow her inside.

‘Put it on the table,’ she said, without turning.  Alva picked up a bag and a case, presumably with the tools needed to mend the wound, and when she turned she saw that Louise had come to a halt just past the threshold.  Louise had never been in Alva’s apartment before, it was like something out of a fairytale.  The flat smelled of copper and dust and was lit by lamps with tasseled shades.  There were two old cats asleep on the windowsill.  Baskets full of linen and cloth sat on shelves.  In the corner was a dressmakers mannequin with the beginnings of a blue garment in the making.  The flat was more a workshop than a home.

‘I said put it on the table,’ said Alva, irritated for having to repeat herself.

Louise shook herself free of inertia and draped the dress carefully over the table.  

Alva dropped the case and bag beside the dress, popped them open and began to bring out various threads and cloth, carefully examining them against the dress.  

Louise sat on a couch and watched as Alva began her work mending the tear, her leathery hands working the material, piercing it with needles and slowly but surely threading it back together.  The dedication and passion was impressive.

‘You should be more careful next time,’ chastised Alva.

‘I will be,’ said Louise. 

Alva evidently lived alone, there was no sign of a partner, no pictures of loved ones.  Sketch books littered the shelves and tables, some of which were open, their pages revealing pencilled drawings of dresses with measurements.  Through the dedication of a craft Alva had forged a life on her own.  But did she get lonely, wondered Louise?

On occasion and usually after a glass of wine, Louise listened to saccharine love songs that made her cry.  Afterwards, embarrassed by herself, she would listen to something settled; an avant-garde piano piece, something early twentieth-century – Webern perhaps – or a violinist like Paganini who played the instrument like a vessel to some other place, grinding the strings, forcing them to pluck and resonate like the violin itself was alive, the wood alive, the sound alive.  This was why she played.

When Alva had finished mending the dress Louise offered her some money in way of thanks but Alva waved the gesture away.  Money was not enough, she said, to wear it would be its own reward. 

The evening started slow and tentative.  She met Karl at a Bar & Kitchen on York Road and when he arrived he looked rushed and pale.  He was dressed in a smart but casual shirt and was wearing dark jeans.  His shoes were dirty.

‘I’m very tired,’ he told her, as he drew up.  She had trouble hiding her annoyance.  They stood in the lobby exchanging an awkward hug.   ‘I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be this tired,’ he said.  ‘It’s terribly rude of me.  It’s been a long day.  And if I’m honest…’ he said.  ‘I’m quite nervous.’

His admission of nerves did nothing to ease her own.  A waitress led them across the restaurant towards a table.  Louise followed closely behind Karl; a slight swagger to his walk, she thought.  The walk across the restaurant seemed to take forever and Louise was pleased she’d decided against wearing an outfit with high heels.  The restaurant was a large open area with a mahogany bar and beside the bar saloon doors leading to a kitchen.  The familiar noise of heat and pans vented from behind it.

When they were seated Karl ordered wine and after the waitress had gone they were mostly silent.  The sound of diners eating and talking on the tables around them only made their silence more intense.  Karl kept glancing over at the bar.  He checked his watch twice.  Louise stirred back her annoyance and was relieved when the wine arrived.  Louise ordered venison pie and Karl went with steak, medium to rare.

Karl took a good glug of wine and then leant forward over the table as though trying to capture her in his gaze.

‘So,’ he said, at last.  ‘Tell me about yourself.’

And so the evening began, with Karl doing much of the talking.  He wanted to know things about her, how she had come to live in the city.  Louise did not tell him much, opting for caution than honesty.

Before she came to the capital, wonderful dreams had come to her of a life that should have been hers, a life of vision and sensibility.  It was in the city that a person could make something of themselves.  As a teenager she had seen in magazines metropolitan women and had been so enamoured that she too wanted to dress like this, to be that person.  

She did not tell Karl any of this.  Nor did she tell him what she loved about the city.

There was much about the city she loved; how it changed with the seasons.  She loved the autumnal showers with people as pale as ghosts.  She loved the pang of joy she felt when she pumped an umbrella dry before walking into a gallery, or caught the smell of fresh coffee from a nearby cafe.  It was these moments that she associated with her favourite literature, of confident heroines in the rain. 

Sometimes when the rain was coming down the windowpane at home she would find herself crying, and when she cried the rain became tears and her tears became the rain.

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Smoking in Prague

I found myself one afternoon high on methamphetamine and talking to a very serious, slightly tearful, but suicidal meth addict at his spacious apartment in the centre of Prague.

Peter had a straight posture and straight gaze.  He was very handsome, tall, and friendly.  His face was golden and suffering.

‘My cock doesn’t shrink,’ he told me.  His English was perfect with only a hint of a Czech accent.  ‘This shit doesn’t affect me anymore.  I can sleep to.’  He went forward over the the table to snort another line and as he did he said, ‘Do you know, not long ago in Prague we used to work for bread.’

We took his terrier for a walk around the streets.  He loved that dog, it was his only friend.  We drifted through crowds of tourists in a surreal cotton-wrapped world.  It struck me how odd it was in this beautiful and historic city that two worlds could collide and never know it.  Prague is known as the Golden City of Spires.  It’s a fusion of Romanesque and Gothic architecture, of Renaissance and Baroque.  The buildings and streets are simply beautiful.  A fairytale.

As we walked along a cobbled road, narrowed by imposing architecture, Peter became silent and brooding.  ‘Do you know the translation of Prague?’ he asked.

We came to a stop so the terror could cock his leg in the corner.  I leant against a wall and lit a cigarette.  ‘I don’t believe I do.’

‘It means the “gateway between Heaven and Hell.”’.

Despite having met me for the first time only hours before, Peter had found in me a man who would listen.  He had bought me a whiskey at a strip joint near Wenceslas Square because, as he said at the time, there was “something profound” about my face.

When we finished walking the dog we made our way back to the apartment to snort more meth.  Yellow lines on the table.  Peter launched into a tired and sad monologue about his ex-girlfriend, his family, his life.  The magic faded.

‘My family are doctors,’ he went on.  ‘They want me to be a doctor.  My ex-girlfriend, I loved her but she wouldn’t take responsibility for things, she wouldn’t clean or cook.’  As he talked I felt a great burden weigh down upon me.  I began to resent him.  ‘I live here but I cannot afford the rent and will be out on the street.  I can’t work.  And you know what?  I don’t care.  I don’t care anymore.’

He began to leaf through photographs he kept in a shoe box.  There were hundreds of them, photos of his friends and family, his ex-girlfriend.  It was another life.  His eyes were distant as he retrieved each one from the box.  He described each scene with detachment, spittle forming at the corners of his mouth.  The situation was beginning to unnerve me.

As he spoke it seemed his brain was no longer connected to the things he was saying.  ‘You know there are a little devils on the ground that lead to my house,’ he said.

After some time I anxiously made my excuses.  At the door I stopped, reached into my bag and pulled free Baudrillard’s The Perfect Crime.  ‘Take this,’ I said.

Peter held it, bemused.  Neither of us knew why I’d griven it to him.  With hindsight I guess I felt the need to impart something before leaving – a gift, a word, an idea.  I knew I’d never see him again.

I walked out into the evening relieved to be free.  I was so high that that the red and orange lights of the city were hurting my eyes.  The world was a strange rock.  My head felt like a stadium, my brain floodlit.  I passed a nun in a grey habit and with a cross clutched to her chest in both hands.  There are countless convents in Prague.  I don’t know why but as we passed each other I tried to meet her gaze but she looked through me like I didn’t exist.

On a corner near Wenceslas Square a Czech man accosted me.  ‘I take you to titty bar!  Nice bar.  Good bar.  Nice pussy.’  He slapped the back of his hand into the open palm of the other.  ‘You bang, bang yes?’

‘I ain’t a tourist, mate.’ I said trying to walk him off.

‘What, you don’t like pussy?’

‘I like pussy,’ I said.  ‘I just ain’t a tourist.’

It was nine-thirty in the evening and I’d been awake all weekend, high for thirty-six hours straight, no sleep, just wired.  My eyes were sore, my jaw ached, and my teeth buzzed.  I felt dirty and dark inside . I slipped through the Metro like a ghost and arrived ten minutes later at Anděl Station.  Luckily the place I was renting was only a minute away from the exit.  As I came up from the underground and made my way towards Radlická street I noticed on the pavement a print of a devil holding a fork.  On the ground a few feet ahead was another identical devil.  Then another.  And another, all of them heading towards the courtyard of my house and stopping just short of the iron gate.  Little devils on the ground.

I got into bed and slept a broken, difficult sleep with my teeth grinding like ice in a glass.  When at last I emerged from slumber a day or two later I flushed the last of my meth and coke down the toilet.

I don’t know where Peter is today, or if he’s even alive.  But since then I’ve bought another copy of the The Perfect Crime.