The Wolf Tone


THE WOLF TONE


 

ONE

Lily’s in the window-seat in pyjamas, legs tucked under, the grubby soles of her feet showing. She offers the wraith of a smile. When Aidan stoops to kiss her, Lily puts up her mouth and passively accepts his early-morning kiss. Aidan takes note. Lily’s moods govern the atmosphere in the household; always have, always will. He understands that a world-famous cellist will have a unique constellation of nervous needs. Lily Himmelfarb has always found the limelight a lonely place to shine. Some darkness, born with her, underlies her brilliance. Their few quarrels have always seemed like the end of the world. Seven years younger than his wife and light years less gifted, Aidan has pledged himself to support and reassure her.

The cello’s still in its case. By this time in the morning Lily has generally been practising for an hour and still going strong. Better not comment though. Aidan, making toast, squints out at the unseasonably bitter morning; frost whitening the lawn, copper beech buds breaking into their purple, betrayed.

‘No kids for nine days, Lily! No bloody Ofsted! Bliss.’

Lily growls, ‘There’s a wolf tone, Aidy. I can’t bear it.’

Whether there’s some way to eliminate the wolf tone without damping the resonance of the errant string, Lily is unsure. She doesn’t look Aidan in the eyes.

‘Oh no, love. We had that before, didn’t we? I thought it was sorted.’ Aidan says we. Because certainly the two of them suffered. The aberration drove a wedge between them. That can’t be allowed to happen again. The old question surfaces in his mind: what does a world-famous musician see in a prosaic primary school teacher?

‘But it’s back, Aidan.’ Lily levels this like an accusation. ‘It’s come back worse. I’m amazed you slept through it.’

‘Do you think we should take it to the luthier?’ Aidan crouches, taking both Lily’s hands in his.

Lily’s removes them. Her face is stone. But then her expression is often melancholy, not least when she’s absorbed in her music and is, in the deepest way known to her, happy. Lily glances at the Wielkovsky as if something in her world had turned against her. Well, and it has, hasn’t it?

‘The luthier is dead,’ Lily says.

‘No, love, no, he isn’t: the luthier never dies. Nat has carried on the business. Mr Himmelfarb the Younger. Well, the Elder now, isn’t he?’

Lily shakes her head. ‘I don’t think Nat will be able to help. It’s the end of the road.’

‘Don’t say that. Ring Nat. Is it the G string again?’

‘Mmn.’

Aidan doesn’t make the mistake of dismissing the wolf tone as some commonplace affliction like a sore throat. But, hey, he thinks, it did visit before, out of the blue, didn’t it, and it did clear off. And we were all right. The first Aidan knew of the wolf was a rasping screech and Lily’s shriek of Aargh! No bloody no! Old Mr Himmelfarb resolved it somehow, though not before it brought Lily out in an eczema rash and they rowed so loudly that the next-door neighbour banged on the wall.

Upstairs, Aidan showers and shaves. This time I’ll keep in close, he thinks. No need to panic. She’ll never leave me.

Lily surprises him by bouncing upstairs three at a time and coming in quite cheerfully to dress and brush her hair.

‘Have you rung Nat?’ Aidan asks. He removes the brush from her hand and begins to draw it through the tangled wilderness of her hair.

‘He’s away. Sorry for being a pain in the backside.’

‘Ouch, did that pull? – sorry.’

He lifts Lily’s mane in his left hand, bending to kiss the nape of her neck. He looks into Lily’s mirrored eyes, meltingly dark. Aidan loves her to lie above him and let the shadowy curtains of hair enclose his face.

‘It will be all right. It truly will. You’ll see.’

Arms around one another’s waists, the two of them drift downstairs. Lily offers to demonstrate the problem. But the wolf turns tail and, retiring to some lair within the instrument’s body, cannot be tempted out. Later Lily says, ‘Had a thought! If it comes back – and it will come back – I shall compose a divertimento on the wolf tone, why didn’t I think of that before?’

Aidan understands what Lily’s doing: turning the glass. The blue vase on the sill was picked up from a charity shop. Angle it between your eye and the light: the world, suspended in water, flips upside down, slips out of true, into new kinds of true. Use the flaw. Of course this would have been impossible with the determining events of the Himmelfarbs’ lives sixty years before. Turn the glass of evil round and its cracks fork into every curve and plane. For some impieties there’s neither forgiveness nor redemption; none would be acceptable. As the late child of a father already elderly, who’d lost his first wife in the camps, Lily has inherited a shadow and carried it through thirty-seven years.

Resting the instrument between spread legs, Lily tunes, her beautiful, broad hands pale against the spruce and maple body.

‘You see,’ she says. ‘Something like this.’

A peculiar, harrowing warble lets rip from the G string. Lily, summoning the predator from its lair, takes it on, taunting and goading. The bad sound bellows through every curve.

The outcry invades the study, reverberating through floor and furniture, entering Aidan through sinuses, soles, spine. No object is proof against its malignity. In the nature of things each strip of two hundred and fifty year old wood vibrates differently. That is always true. But this wildly fluctuating deviance: how does Lily propose to harness it in a viable composition? No audience could bear such barbarity: they’d cringe, snatch up their coats, drop their programmes and flee. What else could they do? The sheer crime of that noise.

And the problem is, the older the cello, the more scintillatingly rich and deep its tones, the more it will be prey to this filthy infection.

Why can’t I just enjoy half term in peace? Aidan inwardly grumbles as he registers the paroxysm in Lily’s face. Don’t I work just as hard as she does? Harder?

The bed churns. Love-making fails. The wind plays dirges on the drainpipes; they wrangle.

It’s Sunday and neither has slept. Blearily Aidan answers the doorbell to Lily’s great-uncle. Something grave is written in Harry’s face: presumably he’s got wind of the wolf tone. Aidan thinks of Harry as his own family; sensitive and thoughtful, he includes Lily’s husband, goy though he is. Kissing his cheek, Aidan helps Harry off with his overcoat. He’s always so natty though he buys his kit at the charity shop and likes to tot himself up and tell you what he’s worth, from hat to shoes. Under a tenner, he’s often proud to report.

‘I thought best to tell you both face to face. What we feared – well, it has come. No, dears, not liquidation. We’ve paid all our creditors. But Himmelfarb’s is shutting up shop. Not a surprise, we did everything humanly possible. There are worse things by far.’

With the recession, there’s no call for antique harpsichords, spinets, pianos. It‘s not as if there were nothing to be salvaged. Prudent and watchful, the Himmelfarbs have eggs in several baskets. But something has come to an end that was full of dignity and virtue – words that belong, Aidan thinks, to another tongue, an earlier world.

In their slender luggage the fleeing Himmelfarbs and Lorenzes brought his fiddle, grimed to fool the border guards. Harry, or Heini as he then was, hadn’t a second shirt to his name when he reached Wales. But into the curious shirt he was wearing – a masterpiece of a garment, now legendary – his sister had sewn gold rings; a necklace was concealed in his stiff collar. In Harry’s luggage crouched the Wielkovsky Stradivarius, a pearl beyond price. Lily’s cello had arrived over a decade before, when the Edels claimed asylum, prescient of coming horror. But in 1938 Harry had been exceptionally fortunate to smuggle out the famous Strad. The whole Himmelfarb family could have survived on the proceeds of shirt and violin, had Harry chosen to sell.

‘Lily does not look herself,’ he murmurs as he leaves.

‘It’s the wolf tone, Uncle Harry. What do you think? Is there any hope of curing it?’

Harry shakes his head. ‘Nat will know. Let’s not give up hope. When is he back from holiday?’

Aidan offers to run Lily’s uncle home but, no, Harry enjoys the walk, especially in this brisk weather. Fit as a flea! he says – is that the picturesque phrase? Harry regards himself, even after all these years, as a mere student of English. Aidan watches him set off under the lime trees and marvels at the cavalier spring in his step. Harry makes no allowance for his ninety years. Aidan hopes he’ll not slip on the icy puddles. Raising a hand, without glancing round over his shoulder, Harry vanishes.

Aidan imagines passing the defunct shop on the High Street, missing the harpsichords, the racks of scores, CDs and vinyl records, collectors’ trove. One day folk will say, Wasn’t that foreign music shop around here once? He’ll miss the scents of glue, resin, oil, varnish, wood shavings; the lathe’s purr through the partition of the piano showroom. An immense continuity is to be found there, some spirit of integrity that connects the instruments with the timber they’re shaped from.

Lily retreats to the study to nurse the wounded instrument, closing the door on Aidan. If the worst comes to the worst, Aidan thinks, it’s insured and can be replaced.

 

TWO

What to do with the cello? If Aidan moves house, will it wreak the same havoc there as it has at ‘Brechfa’? Because, if so, it will have to go. He’d rather smash it with the axe when he chops wood for the stove than take the wolf tone into a home innocent of damage. And who could you in conscience give or sell the corrupted instrument to, to cleanse yourself of it? Who in his right mind would buy it?

Am I mad then? Have I finally flipped? he asks himself. The things I have seen and heard, he thinks, that were not really there. I don’t think they can have been.

‘You’re a brave one, Aidan,’ say the Himmelfarbs. ‘She loved you so much; you were the happiness of Lily’s life.’

Aidan knows this is absolutely not the case and that they must be aware of it. For I have always been second-rate, he thinks, looking down at his soiled hands. And latterly a madman.

To relinquish their home would be a turning of his back on their life together. Perhaps there’s no realistic alternative.

Binbags blacken the space beneath the stairs, where he has dumped four years of Lily’s presence in his world. Twin spirits, equally crazed, inhabit Aidan: the one that jettisons relics of Lily’s existence with an odd, impure sense of exultation, the other who creeps downstairs at night to rescue treasures like Lily’s reading glasses, with her thumb print still on the lens and a single hair caught in the joint of the frames.

Twin Aidans silently wrestle, right hand against left, the faithless and the uxorious. One means to live, whatever it costs and the other is pledged to join the diaspora of ashes that swirled beneath the copper beech and went their ways. One afternoon the cruel twin advertises Lily’s spinet on Ebay.

How could I have done that? Jesus, what was I thinking?

He has cancelled the advert: no harm is done. Aidan drags himself into the living room, long and high-ceilinged with the most fabulous acoustic. Nobody could explain it. One minute – in the kitchen, the hall – you were in dead air, then, stepping into the living room, you were entering a concert chamber. The cello loved it.

I cannot begin to understand or countenance what you did, Aidan thinks, tears coursing down his face. Agent of beauty, Lily chose or was compelled or condemned to look over Aidan’s shoulder into eternity.

Same bloody dream every night, boring, boring. He thrusts back the duvet and hefts himself to the edge of the bed. Tedium. Never expected this. Not equipped for it. Days pass into weeks, weeks into months; the doctor has signed him off for six months with stress. He doesn’t miss the school or the kids. He crosses the road to avoid them. Nothing changes. At ‘Brechfa’ there’s no time to speak of. It just doesn’t pass.

You have left me so intolerably bored.

Mankind is canaille, wrote Goebbels in his diary. Dreadful knowledge.

Six months after Lily’s passing, the strangeness intensifies. There’s a stand of firs on the Gower road, at a bend between Penmaen and Nicholaston: nothing out of the ordinary. The winds have twisted them away from the sea.

Why these trees trigger Aidan’s nervous reaction is unclear. For once his mind is not on Lily but on the radio. He’s listening to Elin Manahan Thomas singing ‘Ravished with Sacred Ecstasies’. The announcer has praised a ‘voice of crystalline purity’, when the firs come into view. The engine noise magnifies; it assaults the music from every side. Aidan veers, shaking and sweating, off the road.

No obvious damage done. Clambering out, he sits on the grass verge. A lackadaisical breeze scarcely tempers the heat.

Perhaps I’ve never actually mourned you, Lily? he thinks: I thought I had. If that hell was – is – not mourning, what is it? A vile taste pools in his mouth. He needs to spit himself out. As Lily did. In the end, I was not enough, Aidan thinks. I was nothing to her, I did not weigh in the balance against the power of that negation. Dragging his carcass home, Aidan topples asleep under the copper beech, awakening in stifling heat. The copse at the bottom of the garden has shuffled closer to the house. He retreats indoors.

Lily’s cello stands against the study wall. There’s a merciful coolness in here; a soft brown patina of age on shelves and panelling and in the antique leather of books and manuscripts. A very particular smell, like coriander. Something Lily said comes back: ‘Of all instruments, the cello’s is the closest sound to the human voice.’

But it’s not a powerful voice, she added. The flute actually exceeds it. The flute produces the power of four cellos, bet you didn’t know that, Aidy. Ah, but the resonance. The endpin transmits sound into the floor and through the boards.

Let’s see if it’s survived her.

What one has witnessed or inherited, Lily once said in her cryptic way, can never be communicated. Language fails us. Music fails us. The Himmelfarbs know that, every last one, to the final generation. It fails over and over, in different ways, the same failure. We are playing games at the seashore, that’s about it really.

Well then, good-girl, Aidan came back, forcing Lily to smile. Hadn’t we’d better get on and enjoy our game?

Briefly I was able to do that for her, Aidan thinks: divert her from the dark place. But it’s monstrous, what you did to me: how could you let me find you hanging?

All this while since finding Lily in the cellar, Aidan has left the cello untouched, encased. He springs the locks and there it lies, Lily’s jewel. Lifting it from its casket, Aidan spreads his legs: poor, bungling ass of a player that he is.

Where does Lily keep the rosin? Goodness, what a puny little stub. And it’s cracked. It’ll do for now. Aidan rubs the sap on the bow: give it a go.

As the bow grabs the strings, the wolf tone snarls, it howls.

It’s more harrowing than an ambulance alarm that clears traffic, careering across red lights towards the next casualty. The shriek, once let loose, transfers itself to parquet and panelled walls, it whirls inside the glass bowl of the oil lamp, sears into gums and tongue and anus. Aidan doesn’t drop or hurl the cello, no, he’s not – apparently – that far gone: it is still, for all its flaws, the most precious thing n his possession, all that’s left of Lily. He lays it down by the neck on the floor and abandons it.

Too hot. Too soon. Why am I here and Lily not? Fainting, Aidan makes for the cellar. To outlive Lily is too great a responsibility. How dare he?

With his hand on the cellar doorknob, Aidan pauses. All quiet. Don’t be silly. Call the luthier. The luthier never dies. About-turn.

Aidan explains, almost in a whisper, ‘It’s not just the wolf tone, Nat. If there’s a high wind or even a draught, which in these big old houses there often is, the cello seems to pick it up. And then everything reverberates. The stairs, the panelling.  Everything.’

Nat shoots him a gravely curious look. There’s much Aidan cannot tell him. How he’s been getting up in the night to it. As if to a restless infant. Which torments him. There’s nothing he can do for it or for himself. He can’t locate the source of the infection – whether it’s in the cello, the house, the copper beech or in him. He keeps this delirium to himself.

Aidan watches the luthier’s hands on the body of the instrument.

‘Infinitesimal cracks,’ Nat explains. ‘You can’t detect them with the naked eye. A cello is mortal, you know, Aidan. Bound to change with age for better or worse. Humid weather or not humid enough – knocks and bumps in transit. Time seasons but it can warp – and then you’re suddenly landed with these weird structural and tonal anomalies.’

‘Can you fix it?’

‘Easily. I could completely eradicate it. But I’m not sure if you’d really want me to. And that was Lily’s quandary.’

‘How do you mean? If you could … why wouldn’t you?’

‘Well, I could try restringing with a lighter string – line of least interference. I don’t think it would work though. And you’d still be losing something, even if it did. The only thing then would be to fit an eliminator. But it would almost certainly geld the instrument.’

Geld it?’

Well, I’m gelded, Aidan thinks. That’s me, a gelding. Anyway who would want me with this suppurating hole in my chest? I wouldn’t want me. She didn’t.

Nat wonders if he’d like to come round for supper one evening. He’s catching a nasty echo from Aidan, that’s obvious. No, I can’t, Aidan thinks as he turns the conversation – I’m unsightly, I’m undergoing some bizarre metamorphosis, some profound disfigurement. He’s ashamed of this fouling of himself.

When Nat has gone – ‘Don’t be a stranger, Aidan bach, now don’t’ – the house settles on its foundations. Aidan takes the cello case by the throat and marches it upstairs. In the attic, he pads it round with an old duvet and locks the attic room where its revolt cannot penetrate his ears.

The anniversary isn’t a day when Aidan could have expected him, being Podiatrist’s Wednesday which, to Uncle Harry’s irritation, cuts his day in two useless halves. Well, not useless – a poor choice of words – for at Harry’s age every moment is a bonus. Not that he wishes to invoke bonuses, a word he detests, given the bankers’ greed. For Marx, if not correct, was not wrong: capitalism must choke on its own internal contradictions. This is how Lily’s uncle talks, crabwise, splitting hairs with himself over the richly imponderable language of Shakespeare, but – just as Aidan suspects he has lost himself in the byways of his idea – Harry finishes his sentence, steps inside and wipes his feet. This Wednesday he has freed himself to be with Aidan.

Harry’s advent is only the beginning of a mad symphony of bell-ringing and rapping.

You marry into a family, bone of their bone, heart of their heart. And suddenly here they all are, three generations of Himmelfarbs, Horowitzes, Lorenzes. To arrive at the door of ‘Brechfa’, they’ve wound their way over the course of a century from the stetls of Poland, Galicia and Romania; from the cities of Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia; from long-assimilated communities of Manchester, London and Cardiff.

Aidan has to keep padding to and fro to admit them. Who has summoned all these people? What do they want of him? Whatever it is, he cannot supply it. Such a promising day it had started too: this anniversary of their marriage. A lie-in, snoozing away dreamlessly. Aidan had come down barefoot in shorts and t-shirt; ignored the cellar door; lolled in the window seat watching the pony-tailed lass next door whistling up to the birds in the eaves.  For the first time, he’d thought longingly of the classroom. His kids. When Aidan shows guests into the lounge, everyone affects surprise at the presence of all the others.

‘Aidan my dear, how are you? I’ve been baking and I made far too many cakes – so we thought … I hope you don’t mind – ’

No sooner has he settled Nat and Molly, with their toddler, than there’s another commotion at the door. In the end Aidan leaves it on the latch: they can let themselves in, if they insist on coming. He’s exhausted, blitzed. A babble of young voices arises in the hallway: the New Edel Quartet, three of the four young women carrying their instruments; Pearl Lorenz empty-handed and looking expectant.

The wild thought strikes Aidan that they’ve heard something about the whereabouts of Lily. That she is coming home at last.

Shy: Lily was wincingly shy. Haunted she was and hid her haunting. Her lustrous name on the world stage burned for the darkness of an inviolable privacy. Aidan sees, in her mind’s eye, Lily’s forehead: a knot of frown lines between the eyebrows. Aidan used, half-unconsciously, to smooth it with his thumb. He remembers how they hid in the curtains of her hair. Always it had been there, the mourning apprehension, always. The worst thing has happened; it will happen again. I bless you, Lily, he thinks, for the tenderness you showed me while you were on this earth.

‘Shall we fetch it now, Aidan?’ asks Pearl.

‘Fetch what?’

‘The Wielkovsky.’

‘Yes, all right. I suppose it’s time. You don’t need to come up, Pearl.’

Aidan’s ready – or as ready as he’ll ever be. He runs up two at a time.

For last autumn he began to treat his disease – homeopathically perhaps – by sitting with Lily’s cello for a few minutes every day. In its case. Winter light blanched the attic room; snow, slithering down the tiles, flopped to earth with no echo. The body of the instrument was void of resonance. Some tormented spirit, he trusted, was dying in there or already had quit.

The season turned. Aidan took to opening the lid and looking in. All quiet.

In the Easter holidays he lifted Lily’s instrument into the golden light of day. He took Lily’s bow to the open strings. The creature at bay growled in its throat. But you too are mortal, Aidan told the wolf, you too are capable of sleep. He rang Nat.

When Nat had finished his work – it didn’t take long – Aidan carried the cello back up to the loft.

The New Edel Quartet tunes up. Pearl’s fingers master the strings; her bow coaxes from the cello’s body something softer and more clement than Lily could ever have tolerated. Aidan is amazed at the mellifluousness that carries into the room and seems a sound without ancestry or precedent: it hardly hurts at all.

 


Stevie Davies

About

Stevie is Emeritus Professor of Creative Writing at Swansea University. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a Fellow of the Welsh Academy. She has published widely in the fields of fiction, literary criticism, biography and popular history. Her first novel, Boy Blue, won the Fawcett Society Book Prize for 1987. This was followed by eleven further novels, of which The Web of Belonging (1997) was short-listed for the Portico Prize and the Arts Council of Wales Book of the Year. It was adapted as a Channel 4 television film written by Alan Plater, starring Brenda Blethyn, Kevin Whately and Anna Massie. The Element of Water (2001) was long-listed for the Booker and Orange Prizes and won the Arts Council of Wales Book of the Year. Kith & Kin was short-listed for the Orange Prize. Into Suez (2010), set in the years leading up to the ‘Suez Crisis’ of 1956, was followed by Awakening in 2013 and a novella, Equivocator, in 2016.