The Violin

It wasn’t my fault! The relief was enormous! The failure of this relationship was not my fault! The breakdown of communication between us was a sad but inevitable result of the situation we were in. No one was to blame. The man we went to see had explained everything.

It was raining when we arrived – one of those sudden tropical downpours which takes everyone by surprise in spite of the preceding humidity – and my mascara had run all down my face. I should have worn the waterproof one, but I was somewhat preoccupied with the coming appointment when I was getting ready and hadn’t paid much attention to my make-up. I just knew I had to put some gunk on my face as armour for this, not a confrontation exactly, but it would certainly be a frank, possibly an emotional discussion in which there would be no place for holding back. All my secrets, my hopes and fears would be laid bare.

His house seemed innocuous enough – no daunting concrete edifice, just an ordinary Queenslander in a quiet tree-lined street on the outskirts of Logan. We stepped up to the door and I took a deep breath before twisting the little knob that rang the bell. A brass plaque displayed his name and profession.

He opened the door to us himself, no polished secretary or glamorous assistant with an alarming professional manner sneering down her nose at us. He was well past retirement age, yet was young with the rejuvenating quality of a man who has got his priorities right. He smiled reassuringly and stepped back for us to enter. He showed us into a tiny lounge-room on the right.

On the wall there hung a golden-framed reproduction of Fra Angelico’s exquisite ‘Annunciation’. On top of a corner cabinet stood a beautiful old lute, mellow-wooded and much played. In another corner an elderly didgeridoo was held in place on the wall, white painted markings shone against the blackened wood, and above it, a dreamtime painting, all swirls and waves.

Our host didn’t shake my hand, or offer me coffee, or invite me to sit. He didn’t comment on my bedraggled appearance or the sudden change in the weather. Social niceties took second place to the business in hand. We got straight on with it. I laid my violin on the centre table already loaded with other instruments. My fingers fumbled with the rusted catches of the case, with the covering, my late grandmother’s old silk headscarf. I drew forth my violin and he took it, almost snatched it from my trembling hand.

A minute ticked by. Then another. Unnerved by the silence and laden with guilt, I blurted out, “I’m afraid it’s not in very good condition. I hope you’re not disappointed. I don’t want to waste your time.”

I think he had forgotten me, for he looked up in surprise. But his smile set me at ease again. I was not totally ‘de trop’.

“Considering the age, I’d say it was in quite reasonable condition. I’ve seen far worse at auctions.” He was still turning it over and over, tilting it this way and that to catch the light. “Tell me about it,” He suggested. I was still standing in the doorway. Raindrops dripped off my hair and shirt collar, down my neck. And it was getting hotter. But clearly humans came second here and I didn’t mind.

“It belonged to my grandmother. She’d had it for about fifty years. I don’t know where she got it, and my father doesn’t remember. She was ninety when she died five years ago. She gave it to me when I was about thirteen, she was going to teach me to play it. That was about twenty-five years ago.” No polite flattery here, as I was used to. No comment such as, ‘you don’t look that old’ or ‘you don’t look a day over twenty-five’. The sort of things people often said to me. He said nothing.

“I tried to learn to play it but I wasn’t very good. She and I didn’t really get on and I soon lost interest. You know what teenagers can be like. It’s been packed away ever since. But when we moved up here from Newcastle a few months ago I came across it again. And now…” I didn’t know how to finish, so I just stopped talking.

“And now you’re thinking of selling it and you want me to tell you how much it’s worth.” He didn’t look at me, for which I was grateful. My face felt hot and red.

“Well, possibly. I – I’m just not sure. I don’t really want to, but…” I hesitated, but I had to justify myself. “It’s a beautiful instrument. I do really like it, except I can’t play it. But my husband wants to sell it to buy an electronic keyboard, which would be better for the children too…” My voice trailed away again. In mentioning the words ‘electronic’ and ‘keyboard’ I felt as if I’d said something obscene. There was an uncomfortable silence.

“Perhaps you’ll be able to afford a keyboard without selling the violin.” He was trying to be diplomatic. “Then you and your husband can play duets together.” He gave me a tolerant smile. “You say your grandmother taught you to play? Was she a music teacher?”

“No. She played in an orchestra. And we didn’t keep it up for long. I wasn’t any good.”

He nodded, looking at the violin again. “Well, you see, it’s one thing to play, but quite another thing to teach. I’ll just go and get my eyeglass, and a book I want to show you. Back in a sec.” He put my violin on the table again, placing it in possibly the only unoccupied spot in the whole room, next to a pile of others: larger, more modern-looking instruments, all needing repairs.

I looked around me. What was it about this room which gave it that restful air? The family snapshots? The painting? The lute? The earth-coloured aboriginal work? The mellow browns and golds of the walls, the polished wood floor? Here it felt as if time itself had stopped at the front door. I was able to relax. Something I didn’t do very often. There weren’t enough hours in my day usually.

He returned. “Read that. It tells you about the maker of your instrument.” He shoved a heavy book at me which I only just managed to catch before it fell on the floor. I began to read the place he indicated, smelling the musty old-book smell whilst he turned again to my violin. He had a tape measure, and was talking to himself.

“Yes. It is a full-size one. 14 1/16 of an inch to be exact. I thought it might possibly be a three-quarter size, it’s so delicate, but no, it’s a full-size.”

“It says here he was noted for the delicate lines of his instruments.” I eagerly showed him the extract. He smiled at me, as at an apt student who has learned her lesson well. But something else I had read surprised me. “Can it really be that old?”

“Oh yes, about a hundred and fifty years. That’s what I wanted the eyeglass for, to check the name and mark inside. See?” He showed me the faded writing inside the body of the instrument, tilting it towards the window to catch the light. He nodded to himself again. “A beautiful piece. See the difference?” He held up one of the modern, lurid tan-coloured violins from his table. I did see the difference. Hideous colour aside, next to mine the modern one looked simply huge.

“So subtle.” He murmured, turning my instrument over in his hands. “So delicate. Not like this modern rubbish. How’s the tone?”

“I beg your pardon?” I had gone back to reading.

“The tone. What does it sound like?”

“It’s nice. At least, I like it. Quite mellow, you know. Warm.” I said what I thought, but was I right? After all, what did I know about these things? How was I supposed to know what answer he was looking for? However, he nodded, apparently satisfied.

“Hmm. Typical of this make. Very well known for the tonal quality.” As he moved about the room, showing me this item and that on the other instruments, comparing them with my own, he had to keep stepping over a ‘cello which lay in its case in the middle of the floor. He caught me smiling as I saw him step over again.

“I’m very busy at the moment.” He apologised. “I’m afraid I haven’t much room here. Now then…”

He began to show me all the things on my violin which needed attention. He gave me a rough estimate of the cost to replace or repair, as necessary. It was a modest sum, really, compared to what he now revealed to me was the probable value of the instrument, but it was more than I could possibly afford. And the value took my breath away.

“If you do decide to sell it, I’m afraid I can’t personally make you an offer, although I’d like to. But we already have about a hundred violins in our shop. Now if it was a viola you’d brought to me, then it would be a different matter. We’ve got very few of those. I suppose you could try advertising in the papers.” But there was a note in his voice that sounded a bit like an accusation. Obviously he was biassed.

“I don’t know if I want to sell it or not. I had no idea it was so old or so valuable. What I really need is some marriage guidance for me and my violin. We’ve kind of – stopped talking.” I told him, trying to laugh, to keep my tone light. But he saw the tears in my eyes and was not fooled.

“You really love it, don’t you?” He asked, softly. I nodded, I didn’t trust myself to speak. A clock ticked loudly in the corner.

“Well, I’m not surprised you’re not talking at the moment,” he said briskly. “You couldn’t possibly play it, because, quite simply, it’s not in a playable condition.”

“I thought it was me…” I couldn’t finish. Frantically I tried to pull myself together.

“No. It’s not your fault. Even a professional couldn’t get a decent tune out of this. As I say, get this work done on the bridge, a proper tail, adjusters on the strings, which will help you with the tuning. And these cracks need repairing, before they get any worse, the bow needs straightening and re-stringing too. I can do the repairs for you, a bit at a time if need be, as finances permit. Then I’d advise you to have a few lessons. You’ll find that the two of you begin to develop your relationship again in no time. And it really will be worth the effort. Believe me, it’s very rewarding. When you’re old like me, you’ll be grateful for something to give you pleasure and help you pass the time.” He waved a hand at the room around us. “If it wasn’t for all this, I don’t know what I’d do.”

He could see I was torn. My family wanted one thing and I wanted another. The violin was worth far more in hard cash than I had imagined. What we could do with that money! Yet my grandmother had given it to me. It was mine. I couldn’t play it properly, but the bond was still there. He didn’t press me further.

“My advice is free.” He told me. I thanked him, unable to express sufficiently my gratitude. I could have hugged him.

It was still raining when I went home. I dashed down the road hugging the case to me, like a beloved one, tears and mascara running down my face, but no one could tell they were tears not raindrops.

At home, I and my violin sat on the sofa with a cup of coffee. Tears dried away now, I made promises which I hoped I’d be able to keep. The mellow wood gleamed. We’d been together for twenty-five years, we couldn’t split up now. The man’s last words came back to me.

In the doorway I had stopped and blurted out my final worry.

“I just don’t have time. I’m so busy at the moment. I have two small children and I’ve just enrolled on a degree course with the Open University. I just don’t have time…”

He had just smiled. “You’ll have time one day. And when you do, it’ll still be there.”

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