122. Distant Music

WHATEVER IT IS, I have seldom heard it, and then only when I am very ill, when my life, as they say, is hanging by a thread. The first time I heard it, I was in my twenties, my late twenties, and I am 52 now, and hearing it again for what may be the last time, and in between I have heard it maybe once or twice. Each time it has been the same, but as is often the case the occasion I most distinctly remember is the first: it was winter and I had been ill in bed for two days. What the illness was I cannot say but its cause, even if it is not to be found in any diagnostic manual, was heartbreak. In those two days of sickness I had been unable to muster up the energy even to call a doctor, let alone cook myself a meal. There was nothing ready-made in the fridge or kitchen cupboards for me to eat other than oats, but I didn’t even have the energy to cook porridge. To make matters worse, I was living alone in a house I was renting on the edge of a coastal town where I knew no one – I was supposed to be writing a novel – and I had nobody to call on for help. The illness was one of those mysterious illnesses that leave you completely incapacitated for a day or two, then they simply dissipate, leaving your body feeling as if emptied from the inside out, like a sunny day after a violent storm, and your soul – assuming we have them – sharply aware of how tenuous the continuation of our existence actually is. This was the condition in which I found myself on the third morning: I awoke feeling weak, as if hollowed out, but the aches that had ravaged my mind and body for two days had gone. I lay splayed on my bed like the survivor of a shipwreck on a beach. I knew I had to get up, find some food, eat something, anything, but for that moment all I could do was lie there and enjoy the relief. For the first time in three days, I became aware of my surroundings. Outside, I heard a wintry wind blowing: not the sound of the wind blowing itself, not its whistling, so much as the soughing of the leaves of the trees that surrounded the house I was renting and hid it in part from the street. Then, by dint of my mere listening, I became aware of another sound: the sound of distant music. It was a major chord, sustained. That’s all there was to it. I couldn’t say what kind of instrument could be making it – it was pure sound, a chord, certainly, but how many notes in the chord I couldn’t say. It was a single body of sound, but not a single note; many notes, but indistinguishable. It might have been a chord of three notes – yes, as a minimum I would have said three – but it might just as easily have been a chord consisting of many notes. At that point in my life I owned a cheap steel-stringed guitar, but I knew it wasn’t a guitar I was hearing, it didn’t have the tone of a guitar, and at any rate the sound a major chord makes on a guitar fades within seconds, whereas this sound was ongoing and unchanging. It was, as I say, unmistakeably a major chord, but precisely which major chord I couldn’t say. For one thing, I don’t have perfect pitch, but my ear is good enough to work out which notes are which if I have a guitar or piano in front of me. I promised myself that I would check just as soon as I could muster up the energy to get out of bed. While the sound itself was unmistakeable, what I couldn’t make out was its source. It sounded like music from another room, but only in the most abstract way. This, I know, makes no sense, so let me be more precise: the sound wasn’t coming from within me but from outside me, only precisely where it was coming from was unclear to me. I could not remember having switched on the radio in the kitchen or the hifi system in the living room since before I was sick, and I had heard no music during my illness, so unless I had somehow switched on the radio or the hifi overnight – in my sleep – there was no way it could be coming from inside the house. Moreover, had it been from the radio or hifi I would have been able to tell, as music from the kitchen radio has a distinct shrillness, just as music from the living room hifi has an equally recognisable depth and roundedness. To go one step further, had the music emanated from either of these sources I would even have been able to identify it directionally, as the kitchen and the living room are separated by some distance, and the human ear is able to identify the directional source of sound with three-dimensional accuracy. As for the neighbours, this seemed equally implausible: I lived at the end of a cul-de-sac. The house I was renting was surrounded by three others, two of which were mostly unoccupied holiday homes and the third of which – the house opposite me – was occupied by a pensioner who, as far as I could tell, listened exclusively to right-wing talkback radio. She was singularly incapable, it seemed to me, of listening to such strange music so loudly that it would be so distinctly audible to someone inside the opposite house. At any rate, if I could be certain of anything, it was that the music was not mixed in with the sound of the wind, which was unmistakeably outside. I sat there listening to that music for, I suppose, an hour or two before my hunger trumped by fatigue and I finally hauled myself out of bed. Only this act, normally so unthinkingly easy, was on this morning so overwhelming, required such a mustering together of unavailable forces, that it wasn’t until I was in the kitchen watching an egg bouncing around in boiling water that I remembered the music, only by then it was gone.