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February 15, 2011 / Siobhan Argent

Better Than Bach (fiction)


His mother was a concert pianist. She had been a proper one anyway, before she’d had him. After she fell pregnant she claimed ‘that was the end of it all’. She laughed when said things like that. His father had never been present, and she couldn’t have afforded a baby-sitter. She spent a lot of her time at home, playing classical music on the old tinny baby grand, choosing melodies to match her moods. When she was content she played Bach. When she was unhappy she played Chopin, with soft, lilting waltzes and mazurkas, and when she was in love she played Beethoven, because he knew what love felt like. Loud and lively in some parts, rolling with scales and laughter, and soft, sweet, and bitterly angry in other parts.

Marcus was a tall boy for his age. He’d learnt quickly to stoop to stay out of the centre of attention. His eyes were soft and doe-like and he had a skinny frame. In his teens, Marcus smelt primarily like the rich coffee he started drinking in his teens and then he smelt like the medium-priced whiskey he liked to drink as he his hit mid-twenties. Although he claimed most writers were like that, he knew it probably wasn’t true. He just liked to associate himself with the possibility of the literary world, in which he spent most of his waking hours buried. His mother played Bach and trilled her soprano edges, but it was words that danced around him like disfigured notes, special because they were his and his only, deliciously inked into his brain like the bastard children of quavers and minims.

He was six when his mother first sent him to school. She hadn’t been organised enough to get him in the year earlier. Her schedule was too busy. She liked to call her jobs ‘major theatrical pieces’ and ‘starring roles’, when she would dress up in glittering black outfits, with elegant make-up and the special earrings she had found on sale at Target. He used to watch her standing in front of the mirror that was a little cracked at the top, swirling back and forth to check her image, tucking in a tag, and mimicking a laugh to watch her face move in the fractured reflection.

School hadn’t been all that tortuous for Marcus. He’d had friends, yes, but they’d been few and far between by the time he reached his final year. Some people called him a fag. It devoured a piece of his soul every time he heard the accusation.

I’m not a fag, he would mutter, slicking down his dark hair and stooping lower. Talking to his tormentors did nothing; their taunts only became louder and more frequent. He was excited about next year. Next year, it would stop, and he could look at young men of his own age and not feel that sudden, unpleasant, burning guilt.

The night he stood outside the bar, the one with all the men, he stood there for fifteen minutes. It was same the night he came home and heard his mother playing Beethoven. Marcus headed to his room and slammed the door, because he knew she would be playing it all night, and he didn’t want to listen.

This one was called Robert. He was tall, dark, well-toned, and said openly to Marcus that he was only there to screw Marcus’ mother. The fag taunts had ended with high school, and so had Robert.

In Year 7 Marcus had won the year level’s high school English prize. His mother hadn’t read the piece but she’d been there for the prize-giving. He smiled at her and she smiled back, waving wildly to him and distracting every other member of the audience. It made his heart burst to see her smiling at him, as if Bach did not matter and his mother’s sweet symphonies lay in his own small achievements.

The first time Marcus ever held a gun in his hand, it seemed to quiver with energy like an unspent rocket. The potential for power, for destruction, was enormous. He pulled the trigger and felt and heard the click, click of the empty breech. At 25, he’d thought that there wasn’t much left to feel for the first time.

Marcus had known he’d wanted to become a writer from the first time he put pen to paper. It was almost compulsive; sheets of paper littered his room, shelving ideas in ramshackle notions. He just couldn’t find a way to put them all together. Nothing made sense until the entire story fit together, the power to do so lying entirely with the author. He almost forgot his aspirations to publish and became his own rising star, his own great literary genius, who didn’t have time to hear Chopin, not even Bach, just his own chorus of praise making his bedroom soundproof, world-proof.

He found himself outside the gay bar again at 20, this time for half an hour. Someone came out and asked him if he would like to come in. He shook his head and walked away, furious he had been caught, it made him look like…

He just wanted to kick something after that, to break his rage on something. Arriving home, Marcus found his bat and walked around the house seething with anger at something he couldn’t quite touch, couldn’t understand, and didn’t ever want to see. Why was life like this?

“Why?” He said it out loud, and it felt oddly compelling. It made him angrier, and rage felt good. He was in the living room, the piano was silent, and he swung out at it. It made a chorus of bitter twangs, agonised sharps and flats colliding with each other, the Bach and Beethoven and Chopin seeping out through shattered keys, and he kept swinging. He would live through this symphony once more, this cacophony of noise, and then maybe he wouldn’t have to hear it anymore. His mother would be so angry. Maybe she would hit him. Would she worry about him? He kept swinging and the bat didn’t stop moving until he did, until the piano was hopelessly broken, ripped apart, the wires too fractured to make any more great crashing sounds.

He wasn’t home to see his mother’s reaction to the broken piano. He went out to the shops nearby with a black spray can and wrote ‘WHY?’ on the yellow wall out the back. He knew it was graffiti, he knew it was illegal, but it meant something. It was his, and it was incomplete. Everyone who saw it on the Seymour train line would read it. They would ask the same question, and the response would always be different. They would never get quite the same answer as he did.

When he came home, late, there were sleeping pills on the counter and his mother was sound asleep on her bed, wrapped up in her soft, green, flowered satin dressing gown, her auburn curls framing her face as she lay on her side. The piano hadn’t been touched and nothing had been cleaned up. She was still wearing make-up, but the mascara had run and the phone lay next to her hand. He checked his phone. She hadn’t called him.

The next morning he rose, dressed, and began to write in his room, but it was merely pretence. He was giving his mother an opportunity to demand what had happened. When she didn’t come, he left his room and heard the CD player filtering Bach through her bedroom walls. Rage welled up and burned his insides until the piano seemed only a tiny morsel of his destructive energies. He slammed the front door as he left and didn’t bother to take his mobile with him.

The overpass seemed tempting enough. No one would miss him doing it. It would be the perfect place. The roar of traffic grated on his ear drums, harsh and unrelenting, but it sounded better than Bach. It was music to tortured ears.

He leaned calmly over the precipice to look at the space of concrete that separated him from the freeway thirty metres below. It was not much. He took out the spray can and set to work, writing upside down, careful not to drop the spray can. He wrote it four times.

WHY? WHY? WHY? WHY?

Vivaldi had written Les Saisons in four sections. It was even in Marcus’ very own font, square and unforgiving, black, thick, impossible to ignore, never ignored. It would ask the right question; it would ask for him. It would mourn for him.

The sleeping pills didn’t really taste like anything but, at 25, nothing had taste anymore. There was nothing left but the question, one that he had never truly answered. Yet he knew that he could see the truth if he looked hard enough. The water washed the tasteless things down. He lay on the bed in silence, enjoying the melody that it seemed to instil inside him, tuneless, nothing.

She would probably play Chopin for a little while, after she got another, better piano, because Chopin would suit the mood. As a musician, she would know that even if she couldn’t see the opera herself, the voices she can hear singing the Italian tunes tell her that the mood must be melodiously discordant, and sometimes sombre. The world is a play, she knows that, but she isn’t in an orchestra hidden from view. She’s the brilliant score, the uplifting melody, she knows how she wants to feel and Chopin cannot be with her for long. She will play the uplifting notes and feel it as she has always felt it, but soon Bach will dance on her keys again. She doesn’t notice the thick black letters, the publisher of a question interminably incomplete. She doesn’t understand the music of silence. She doesn’t understand words, because nothing is better than Bach.

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