There was something about the way the wind was blowing that day that echoed how I felt. It had the same notes of rising hopelessness, of despair descending into depression, that I stopped to listen.
A building across the street was hit last night, and men are digging through the rubble. The staccato of bricks striking each other provides a funeral march’s percussion to the lament of the wind.
A perfect accompaniment to my thoughts.
William Taylor’s Orchestra was my last hope. Or had been. Until William Taylor himself told me that there was no vacancy, no room for one skinny violinist in his orchestra. But I could see it in his eyes — the mistrust, the doubt. It wasn’t that he couldn’t take me on, but that he wouldn’t. All it had taken was my German-sounding name.
The dirge the wind is playing through the buildings and with the dry leaves has become too much for me. I adjust my violin case on my back and walk on, but not before the men across the street lift a corpse from the debris.
People are trying to put on a brave face. The sirens sound, and we move obediently to our shelters. Next morning, we dig the living and the dead out of the graves created by German bombs. And we carry on, ignoring the rubble and the gaps made by buildings that are no longer there.
The wind grabs my hat and blows it down the street. I watch it a moment before deciding to give chase. I can’t afford a new one.
It blows up against the remains of building that got bombed last week and gets wedged in the debris. I slow, panting.
Something in the dusty piles of rubble shifts, turning to look at my hat. I stop, holding my breath, as a child leans over and pulls it free. She studies it for several moments before looking up and meeting my gaze with a solemn intensity that makes me want to move on, to pretend I haven’t seen her.
No child should have that much despair in their eyes.
I swallow and move towards her, forcing myself to breathe normally.
“Hello,” I say after a moment.
“Hello.” She makes no move to offer me my hat.
“Do you live around here?” I ask, not quite sure why I am, but somehow thinking it’s the right thing to ask.
She looks at the piles of debris around her. “I live here. Or used to.”
“Oh. I see.” The wind is running its cold fingers through my hair. I should take my hat and go.
But where? And why? I don’t have anywhere particular I need to be, and one bomb shelter is much the same as another if I don’t make it home by nightfall.
The girl is staring at my hat again, as though some secret to life itself is woven into its fibers. So I take my violin case off my shoulder, select a likely looking pile of bricks, and sit down next to her. She watches as I set my case to the side.
“This?” I ask, placing a hand protectively on the black cover. “It’s my violin.”
She blinks, staring at my instrument with the same focus that she had used to study my hat. I pull it a little closer to myself before stretching my legs out in front of me and staring at the toes of my shoes. They’re scuffed and in desperate need of a polish.
Maybe tomorrow I’ll get work and be able to do something about them.
The wind decrescendos to a pianissimo, and I close my eyes. Maybe it was a day like this that inspired Vivaldi to write the first movement of Winter. I can almost feel the build of the music as it passes through the opening measures to the scalic passages that imitate a cold wind on an icy morning.
That’s something that I haven’t played for a while.
I open one eye a little and look at the little girl. She’s still staring at my violin, my hat now loosely held. Maybe…
But no. Vivaldi’s Winter needs a full string section to even be remotely close to what it should be. The cellos keeping time, the second and third violins supporting the first with their vibrant tremelos. No, I can’t play it without an accompaniment.
I straighten, pulling my feet closer to myself, and indicate my hat.
“Look, that’s my hat, and I do have to go…”
“What does it look like?”
I stop mid-breath, my mouth open. “Pardon?”
She points to my case. “Your violin. What does it look like?”
“It looks like any other violin.” I hold my hand out for my hat.
“Daddy used to play. Before.” Her voice is so soft that I barely hear the whispered words. She looks at her hands. “He had a hat like this.” And she gives me my once-black hat before resting her chin in her hands and staring at the ground.
How can I leave now? Even if her story is the same as countless others, even if she is no different from any other child in London.
But if I’m truly honest, I don’t want to leave. She’s the first human being in weeks to even show an interest in my violin. My fingers are aching to touch the strings again, to feel the glide of the bow across the strings. And a deep part of me desperately wants someone, anyone, to listen.
I place my hat on my head, pulling it down so the wind can’t snatch it from me. And lay my case flat on the ground, flicking the clasps open and lifting the lid.
The little girl hasn’t moved, but I can sense her attention as I lift the bow and turn the screw, the hairs becoming taut. The wind dies down, completing the atmosphere of tense expectation that precedes any great performance. When I lift my Francois Barzoni violin from the case, the staining on its body chipped in a couple places and the fingerboard showing wear, she turns to face me. As I lift my violin to my shoulder, she sits up straight.
And the street takes a deep breath, holds it, waiting.
I place my bow to the strings, close my eyes, and begin to play.
Vivaldi’s Winter begins quietly, a series of staccato notes embellished with trills. I am acutely aware of the gaps in the music. No cellos, no violas or other violins. My hands are sweating and I misplay one of the notes. A quick peek at the little girl shows me that she hasn’t notice.
I am at the beginning of the crescendo. But the louder I play, the more empty it sounds. It’s at the start of the demisemiquavers that I stop and lower my violin.
“I… can’t.” I indicate the empty street, the open space before us. “It doesn’t sound right.”
The silence grows, and after a few moments I move to place my violin back in its case.
“It’s okay,” the little girl whispers.
No, I want to scream at her. It’s not okay. This shouldn’t be happening. You shouldn’t be here. Your father should be with you, playing his violin and wearing his hat.
But she turns away from me, places her chin in her hands, and stares at her shoes.
The wind starts to blow again, a haunting melody embedded within its heart. It carries with it the feeling of a piper playing alone in the Scottish highlands, surrounded by mists, his song moving beyond what can be seen.
I had been trying to play the wrong thing.
I raise my violin to my shoulder, and keep my eyes open as I begin to play, following the lead of the wind as it rises and falls between the ashes and debris of the girl’s home. It is when I repeat the tune that she starts to sing, her voice breaking with tears.
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound.
She draws a shaking breath, and I hold the note, waiting for her to continue.
That saved a wretch like me.
She sits up a little straighter, raising a tear-stained face to the sky.
I once was lost, but now am found.
Her voice is growing in volume, and I follow suit, the rich tones of my violin carrying as they never have before.
Was blind, but now I see.
The wind dies down with the last strains of the song. After a few moments, the little girl wipes her face with grimy hands, smudging dirt across her cheeks, and leans herself against me. I hesitate a moment before wrapping an arm about her shoulders.