by Andrew Lee-Hart
We sit in silence around a table at the White Lion; four of us all betrayed by what we once loved. We drink and stare into space, whilst the sound of people outside chatting and laughing, serves to emphasise our isolation from the world around us and from each other.
For me it was music that betrayed me; music was my life, and I thought that my talent was a never-ending stream of notes; discordant at times, but still beautiful for those who knew how to listen. But now, the stream had dried out completely; I could not compose, nor even bear to listen to it. For the first time ever, I was living a life without music, and I was beginning to realise that it was not a temporary blip but something permanent. I now needed to find myself something to do, before I ran out of money and sanity, but instead I drank and felt sorry for myself, willing my muse to reappear, without believing it would.
I met Miriam in the White Lion pub, which is on a side street, in a less touristy part of Islington. Of late I had been going there for a drink instead of eating lunch, and then staying all afternoon. The pub suited me because the few customers that came in during the day tended to keep themselves to themselves, and mercifully there was no juke box playing, so I could read or more often sit and remember past triumphs.
As I sat, slowly drinking my second pint of the day, and shivering in the lightly heated pub, I became aware of a demonstration marching past outside; ringing bells, marching and chants.
Whats going on? I asked Rob., the landlord, whose calm demeanour and world-weary tones, made me think that he knew the answer to everything.
It will be to do with Israel; a café was bombed in Tel Aviv, and there are worries that they will retaliate.
Oh well, I muttered, not caring about something that had happened in an alien city a thousand miles away.
Soon the march moved past, and I was wondering if I should get up and do something with what was left of my day, when a woman came in wearing a long black jacket and carrying a placard, which she pushed into the bin by the door, with a fury that both amused and frightened me. She then ordered a vodka and orange from the impassive Rob.
I watched her sit down and stare at her drink, she looked attractive and as I continued to look, I realised that she was older than I had first thought, nearer my age rather than an undergraduate. So, with the courage that only alcohol can give I went up to her.
Are you okay?
Something that I wished somebody had asked me that at least once over the last year, rather than looking at me as a complete failure as my wife did.
I think she was about to tell me to fuck off, but then she looked at me and realised that I meant no harm and told me to sit down if you want to.
We sat there in silence for a bit; something I rather enjoyed.
Sorry I am just a bit cross.
Dont worry about it. Were you on that march?
Yep, I knew that it would be awful, but then I always go on them. All my friends are there; it is my life .
So why was it awful?
She drank her vodka and orange swiftly and then asked if I wanted anything and as I never said no to a drink, I joined her in some of Russians finest.
Oh it was all the chants from the river to the sea and calling for an Intifada, she explained, they all seem to hate Jews. And I think of my grandad escaping Poland from the Nazis, and all the millions who died .
She drank some more.
Israel has been attacked by terrorists, but all my friends can think to protest about is Zionists, by which they mean Jews of course. I dont agree with all that Israel does, certainly not the Likud party, but bloody hell, Israel is the one who was attacked; and not soldiers but students and mothers having their lunch, just living their lives. My grandfather used to talk about how everyone hated Jews and that the English were as bad as anyone else You know that old cliché about the suitcase by the door; in case the Nazis came; well he had a bag packed, ready to take with him if they came for him. We all thought he was bitter and paranoid, but I think he was right.
I dont know a great deal about it, I admitted.
Well you are the only person I know who doesnt seem to have an opinion. And then if I hadnt gone there would have been endless lectures from my friends about the oppression of the Palestinians, and how if Israel had not taken their land, they would not need to kill children on their way to school or teenagers drinking cola.
We finished off our conversation in her bed; she had a room, in a rather lovely looking house, a bus ride away in Highgate. The walls only had a couple of Marc Chagall reproductions rather than the worthy posters I had expected, and her books were mostly Victorian poetry, rather than the Communist Manifesto.
Are you married? she asked me, afterwards.
I am not sure.
How can you not be sure?
We are like ghosts; I am a composer but since I lost the ability to create music well I cannot communicate with her either, and she doesnt care. She looks at me with contempt, as if it is unimportant, and I should sort myself out; but what else is there? It is my life.
I am sorry, perhaps you are trying too hard, and if you take a break from it, stop making an effort .well you will start composing again.
Oh I stopped making an effort months ago, believe me. Why do you think I was sitting in The White Lion?
She stroked me as I lay there, maternally, rather than as a lover.
But did nothing trigger it?
No, well maybe; perhaps I was too complacent. I wrote a symphony for this orchestra in Sweden, and I went out to Stockholm to conduct it. It went down extremely well, I have never had such acclamation, real enthusiasm, more they ever get in England. And as they applauded I felt that I could do anything, and was already making plans for more and more ambitious works. And then I drank too much afterwards; and got friendly with one of the violinists, and we had sex; the first time I had been unfaithful to my Anna my wife, and it was easy, no guilt afterwards. I was some kind of Superman; the new Beethoven taking all before me .
And then I came back to England feeling ever so pleased with myself, and to my horror discovered that I can no longer compose or even play music, not even Bach who I used to love more than anything else. At first, I would sit at the piano, unable to play a note, assuming that it would happen, but now I never open it, I even covered it with a throw, so that I do not have to look at it.
Does your wife know, about the woman from the orchestra?
She seems to; she has not mentioned it properly, but ever since I got back there has been hatred, perhaps she knows me too well Or maybe I just feel guilty and I am imagining it god knows.
So will you give up your friends? Stop going on marches and protests? I asked awhile later, as we stopped to draw breath.
They are all I have . the people I share this house with are part of the same group and I work at a Socialist bookshop which we run as a co-operative. They are my whole life. Can I give this all up? Find new friends, a new job? And they are lovely, well most of them but their ideas are just childish not just those about Israel -, and I am only beginning to realise it, and when I try to explain I get shouted down and lectured. I am tempted to move back in with my mum and dad, at least I would have more privacy.
We kissed again and for a few moments my self-absorption was pierced.
Anna glared at me as I came in later that evening, and then she turned away. She was sitting in the lounge drinking coffee, the house silent.
Where were you? Drinking again? Having sex with somebody else?
I could not think of anything to say, so just stood there for a few moments, feeling unutterably sad, despite the moments of pleasure an hour ago. Anna turned on the television and after a few moments I sighed and walked up to the spare room, where I had been sleeping on and off since I got back from Sweden.
I picked up another detective novel and started to read although unaware of what it was that I was reading. Part of me wanted to go down to my wife and talk, but something stopped me; guilt or a sense of futility. After all she was right; I had been drinking and having sex with someone I had just met. I had become a very unpleasant person, and I could not blame it on my musical impotence.
I must have been asleep by the time Anna eventually went upstairs. In the early hours I woke up needing the toilet, and having urinated I thought that I should go to her, there was silence from her room, and a sense that she was expecting me, and I turned towards our room, but I was tired and could not be bothered and so I changed my mind and went back to bed and must have fallen back to sleep straight away.
I sat with my friend Mike, in the White Lion.
How is it going? He asked.
I know that he is asking whether I have written anything yet; in particular that oratorio the music department at the University where he works, commissioned me to compose.
Nothing, not even a tune; I sit at the piano sometimes - which was a lie - and nothing comes to me, nothing at all.
Oh well, dont worry about it. I am sure once you have written something, the orchestra and choir will only be to happy to play it. Professor Griffiths is very understanding. Anything else on the go.
No, nothing, nothing at all.
The pub smelled of little but the whiff of despair and old men, not like the good old days when you would come home stinking of tobacco, despite not having had a cigarette. And then there was a waft of a familiar perfume, and Anna was at our table. She kissed Mike on the lips with such familiarity and ease that I realised that they must have had sex at least once. For a moment I felt shock and betrayal, and then I did not care, feeling less guilty about my misdemeanours.
Fancy seeing you here, Mike said, and pulled out a chair for her.
She smiled briefly, well it is the only way I get to see my husband she looks at me arent you going to buy me a drink?
Why arent you at school?
It is Saturday, hadnt you noticed?
I stood up and bought more alcohol, whilst Rob looked at me, with what might have been an amused look on his face.
So how is your work at the University? my wife asked our friend.
Mike snorted, I think I might be leaving.
I laughed, you have been saying that for years .and yet here you are.
Well, I might not have a choice. I made some comments about Brexit in one of my lectures and someone complained.
I thought you voted Remain.
Well I did, but the referendum went the other way of course and so I think we should follow the will of the people. But anyway, we were talking about Hegel for Gods sake, and this young lad somehow got us onto Brexit, and I talked about middle class elitists and ignoring the working-class, then I was accused of being a racist and things went downhill from there.
Oh dear Anna said, you never were good at keeping your opinions to yourself.
But why should I? This is a university for Gods sake, and I am a philosopher, I should be able to challenge assumptions and be a pain in the arse, rather than follow the University orthodoxy. When we were students in Leeds, we were encouraged to ask awkward questions and listen to the answers, but not now; now if you dont follow a particular point of view you are shouted down and threatened with the sack.
Yes, there was more freedom of speech in the seventies Anna agreed.
He sighed, I could apologise I suppose, but I am not sure that I want to.
But academia is your life. Would you be able to find another job anyway?
God knows; I could get a job in Asda stacking shelves I imagine. I would have to sell my flat and go and live with my mother, she would be pleased although I would probably end up murdering her after a month or two.
How is she? I asked.
Getting older and crosser.
At least we know who you take after.
And then Miriam walked in, looked around, caught my eye, kissed me on the lips and sat down.
Hello Miriam. To my surprise Mike obviously knew her.
Oh Doctor Barber. She looked rather askance, Fancy your knowing each other.
And this is my wife Anna I smiled ruefully.
Anna looked her up and down and smiled with no humour in her eyes, as if she had seen right through us.
Sit down and let me buy you a drink she said forcibly. And Miriam, looking rather scared, did so, her knees shaking as they touched mine under the table.
As we sat there in silence, suddenly unbidden the start of a theme came to me; four voices, discordant and full of anger and hurt, all with their own tale to tell; they converge for a few moments and then separate and carry along with their separate themes, before occasionally coming together again, a harmony that is so beautiful because it is fragile and unlikely to last.
Quick, lend me a pen and paper I said to Mike, but neither he nor the others had either, fortunately Rob did, and so I quickly scribbled my ideas down, before they dissipated into the London streets that surrounded us.
Whilst I continued to write down the music that had come unbidden into my head,, Miriam, Anna and Mike looked at each other in silence, avoiding each others gaze and wondering what would happen next.
More stories from Winamop
Copyright reserved. Please do not reproduce without consent.