Twenty years passed before he touched the instrument again. It sat forgotten in the attic of his parents’ house until his mother’s accident, when he came back to look after her. He found it one afternoon in the darkness under the eaves as his mother slept in her armchair downstairs, looking for old photo albums at her request, its black case filmed with dust. The clasps made the same sound as they always had when he unlatched the case, and inside the cello lay swaddled and undisturbed in its velvet upholstery. There was still rosin dust on the varnished surface of the body, on the strings which lay slack on the fingerboard; he felt the skin on his hands tingling. In a daze he took the cello gingerly out of its case and sat with it between his legs. It fit perfectly, as if his body and its body had continued to grow with each other over the years, separate but connected by some invisible cord. He took the bow in his hand, tightened it and watched how his fingers formed without thinking into the proper hold, the memory stored in his muscles. He sat motionless, not daring to move, the taut bow hair hovering above the loose strings; and like someone in a dream he floated with his cello in the dark space of the attic as if suspended, waiting, unable to break the silence of these twenty years.

..

Late for rehearsal she tripped while trying to run with her cello along the street and fell with it. At the sound of the crack time paused for a moment and her mind replayed the wood cracking, trying to discover which part of the instrument would have produced such tone and quality of sound. She lay for a moment pressed into its fallen body on the pavement, not daring to confirm whether her suspicions were correct, before becoming aware of herself again. Ignoring the lunchtime crowds around her she got to her knees and gingerly turned the cello so it lay on its back, unzipped it up its side, peeled off the slipcase. Kneeling in front of its exposed body she ran her eyes along its splintered haunch and shattered shoulder into its hollow chest and felt it was her own body that had been smashed, laid bare, emptied out. She wanted to touch it, to heal it by the placing of her hands on its wounds, to stroke it and sing to it, to lie back down alongside it on the pavement and hold it to her like a doll, like a baby trying to sleep.

..

In his first lesson he had to learn how to sit properly, then how to hold the cello, where it should touch his body. He had to pretend to be comfortable with this awkward wooden box lodged between his knees and digging into his chest. The next week the teacher showed him how to hold the bow, had to bend his fingers with force into the right position on the stick. It seemed to him immensely badly designed, composed of blades and angles that cut into the pads of his fingers. He was supposed to carry it with just his fingertips when he wanted to clutch it in his fist; he felt he would drop and break it at every moment. The next week when he finally put bow to string he kept losing the correct hold, and when he retrieved it he would forget how to move the bow in a straight line or at the right angle to the string. When he had it almost right the teacher made him put his other hand on the neck of the instrument and he immediately forgot everything again. The sound he made was agonising, laughable. After a couple of months he started to despair that he would ever be able actually to play the instrument. Was this what he had been dreaming of all these years? In his mind’s eye he had seen himself playing Elgar to audiences in rapture to every note; between here and there he now realised had to be overcome the distance between him and this alien body of wood and catgut, that he and it had to be bound together with the stitches of a thousand repeated rituals, ten thousand repeated movements.

..

She sings in the candlelit choir stalls looking across at the mouths on the other side opening and closing like trapdoors as if she is looking into each of them in turn for something that has been hidden from her. She sings, though she may in this moment have forgotten why she sings, in order to resurrect the voice she held in her hands five years ago playing the cello from morning till evening every day for weeks on end practising for her concert, practising too much, playing for too long and ignoring the staccato of pins and needles on her nerves which crescendoed to a pain like nails being pushed through her wrists, her palms, her fingertips. And still she played. The sharper the pain, the worse she sounded, the harder she practised. One morning a week before the concert she woke up and the pain was excruciating; she couldn’t hold her toothbrush or a spoon and certainly couldn’t play a cello concerto; she wanted to cry out in agony each time she had to move her hands. When she sings five years later it is with the voice of her cello, her clean soprano in counterpoint to the echo of its tenor, the solo she never played in concert and the cello she never played again; when she sings it is with the voice of her silent and crucified hands.

..

It was practice which made his hands and his cello seem to fuse into a single limb during those months with the orchestra. He no longer felt the bow in his hand or the body of wood between his legs; the movement of his fingers on the cello’s neck seemed to occur of its own accord. His body expanded to include his cello and its voice. He could hear the note he was playing before he had played it, could predict exactly its tone and quality. On those occasions when he was separated from his cello because he had to travel or had to eat, he refined this inversion of sequence so he could practise without an instrument; he recreated his cello within him. After the accident which left him unable to play, it was this technique which held him back from complete despair. He would ask to be wheeled to the window and would sit in the oblique square of sunlight running through études and concertos in his mind’s ear. Once he asked for his cello to be brought in for him to look at while he was playing but he could not bear his longing to hold it. He started playing instead on people he could see from the window, the backs of women walking along the street. He imagined their rich deep voices singing as he held them between his legs. He would fall asleep in front of the window and dream of complete and perfect bodies, and when the angle of the setting sun woke him he didn’t remember having dreamt at all.

 

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