Every summer, the community of Port Tawe contracts against outsiders; and yet, this summer, they want to know everything about him. In her constant to and fro between the bakery and café, Riona hears them whisper. The young man. The artist. The stranger. People speak as if she is not there. They amuse themselves with their hushed talk.
She has never spoken to him, although she knows the texture of his voice. The shape of the words that fall from his lips, that hang about his head and trail after him when he opens the door to leave.
Her own questions come at night. Questions about the birds he watches from the balcony with its view of the harbour: the dinner-jacketed guillemots sailing on the wind, the herring gulls fighting over scraps. About the colours he chooses to capture the sound of the waves as they crash against the rocks.
‘Riona, are you daydreaming again?’ Her mother’s voice startles her. Not unkind, but it has a crispness to it. Riona picks up a tray, balances it across her forearm and goes into the kitchen to fetch more scones. This is Cornwall; in the tourist season, she is surrounded by scones.
She had not meant to enter the gallery; there were too many villagers in there, and she felt as though she would wilt beneath their stares. But the phantom orchestra had been calling to her, and its music had assumed a major key since the day he picked up his brush. A delicate lacework of trills and turns, the music had become the song of the mermaids out in the bay. She had not been able to close her ears or block it out with everyday banalities. She had been too slow to recognise that the paint beneath his fingernails and the lingering smell of linseed had held a message. But tomorrow he would be gone.
Since his arrival at the holiday flat, she had watched as the shades of paint on his clothes changed and multiplied. Sometimes thick splashes, sometimes delicate drops. Once, a purple smear like a bruise on his cheek. From these, she had imagined the canvas he was working on. The boldness of his brush as it swept across the surface, the sinuous interplay of light and shade. Lily, who cleaned and changed the bed linen, said it was huge and always kept covered. Riona had closed her eyes and imagined the cloth lifting in the salty breeze, heard the ghost of a half-remembered melody.
One morning, his voice had floated from his open bedroom window as she emptied the bins in the yard. It had been a clear day, and the swifts were arrowing over her head. She’d stopped, straightened, torn between the desire to listen and the need to hide. He was on his phone.
‘It’s been what I needed. I couldn’t have gotten it done at the studio. Not with … well, you know what I’m talking about.’
He paused, and she moved into the shadows, scared he would look down and see her.
‘I thought as much.’ His voice grew quieter. ‘I’ll have to let it go, of course. The place is like a long look of recrimination, and we both know how good she is at that.’
His laughter, unexpectedly harsh, clattered around her. She held her breath and edged back into the bakery.
Inside the gallery, she is scared. Her head is down, her hair covers her face, her steps are quick. The music draws her toward the back wall. She is a fish on a hook, reeled in by the mermaid song and the drum-tapping snap of bow lines.
When she stops, the air moves, and she knows he is beside her. She casts him a sideways look. ‘You’re clean,’ she says. They are the first words to pass between them.
He laughs, a deep vibrato. ‘I made an effort.’
The canvas towers over them. Violent flicks and jabs of colour explode across its surface to create a tangle of night consuming day. It is not what she expected.
‘Is it a storm?’ she asks.
‘It could be,’ he replies.
Doesn’t he know? In her head, the music is raging. The strings strain, the woodwind blasts, the brass delights in the ferocity of the gale. Faster and faster it surges, wave after wave, heading for the cliffs, where it will end in a mighty crescendo.
‘It feels like a storm,’ she tells him.
‘It’s open to interpretation, of course.’ He spends a long moment staring at what he has created, then adds, ‘But I was thinking more of a fluid fusion. An intertwining of nature. Sound, movement and colour.’
Something stirs inside her, and she thinks she understands. Risking another glance, she studies his profile. ‘The music is often like that too.’
‘Music?’ He frowns, confused.
She should not have mentioned the music. ‘I have to go.’
He reaches out, his hand hovers close to her arm. Under his thumbnail, she sees a thin, purple crescent. ‘Tell me about the music.’
‘I shouldn’t have come.’ She moves away, makes for the door. They will be looking at her. Shaking their heads. Asking themselves why she is there. She can hear him following her and begins to walk faster.
He catches up. Every head is turned, every eye on them.
‘Will I see you tomorrow?’ he asks. His voice is hardly audible. ‘At the bakery?’
She nods. He will see her, just as he has every day when he comes to buy his coffee.
After the accident, music was her constant companion. When she had first become aware of it, she did not know where it was coming from, only that it calmed her and soothed her sense of loss.
With no concept of anything outside her dark cocoon, she allowed the gentle movements to rock her with their lyrical flow. It may be I shall stay this way forever, she thought, but then the waking had come, and with it the anguish of being lost at sea with only the music as a thunderous accompaniment. Over time, she managed to claw her way back to life and, instead of the ‘before’, found herself shipwrecked in the ‘after’. Her memory had been broken in two; one half buckled beneath something so terrible it could not be remembered. Every attempt had been like trying to capture a cloud in a butterfly net.
He is in the bakery when she comes down the stairs. She waits out of sight.
‘You must understand.’ It is her mother’s voice, but the snap is missing. ‘Riona finds things difficult.’
‘I appreciate that,’ he replies. She wishes she could see his face. His shadow across the floor, lengthened by the morning sun. ‘But she came to the exhibition opening and –’
‘She came to the gallery?’
‘Yes.’ There is something in his voice that makes her scalp tingle. Something that says he will argue with Riona’s mother if it comes to it. ‘She came to see the final canvas in the series, the one I finished up in the flat.’
‘You told her about the opening?’ An accusation.
‘Me? No. I’d never spoken to her before last night. Is there a problem?’
Silence. It grows between them, stretching out until it reaches Riona as she stands, listening, in the empty café. Her mother is thinking, searching for the right words with which to explain. Finally, she sighs. ‘There are some things my daughter doesn’t need to be reminded of.’
Riona does not wish to hear any more and escapes to the solitude of the clifftop. When she returns, he is gone. The bakery is closed.
Weeks pass. When the tempo of the music is right, she dreams of him as a cello, his notes rich and resonant, velvet chords running through her numb fingers. As the waves of sound cushion her head, she thinks of the canvas, the crescent of paint beneath his thumbnail, the bruise-like smear. She looks at the misshapen nail on her own thumb. Her chest aches.
His paintings remain in the gallery throughout the summer. One evening, after the crowds are gone, she presses her face to the glass and sees red spots blossoming along the white walls. They have sold, and the flutes warble with pleasure on his behalf. She holds back from looking at the end wall for as long as possible. Only when the music in her head is pitch perfect will she open her heart to the painting that hangs there. When the strings are thrilling with anticipation, and quavers become semiquavers become demisemiquavers. Only then.
The music leaps, an excited sforzando.
Emptiness stares back.
The silence in her head is absolute.
A melody finally returns to her at midnight, floating into her room. The piccolo leading in a coaxing pianissimo. She ignores it. Curled in on herself, she clamps her hands over her ears. Her cramped fingers complain. When she is certain her mother will not hear, she tiptoes down to the basement. It is a place she prefers not to go but is forever drawn to. To that thing she feels the pain of every day, like a missing limb.
Its case is dusty. Neglected. She presses the twin locks and lifts the lid. Inside, nested in blue foam, is the instrument. Even in the dim light, it shines, silver on black. It is hard for her to breathe in the presence of this thing which once shared her breath. The double reed quivers inside its box; her lips long to hold it. When she can stand the pain no longer, she returns the coffin holding her dreams to its resting place. Heart pounding, she feels the past buckle again.
On the day after the last summer storm blows out to sea, Lily comes to clean the flat. At the gallery, the owner is closing up, his van parked half on the pavement. He and Riona’s mother say their goodbyes in low voices, heads not quite touching. It is the same every year; his is a summer business.
Riona stands outside the bakery, looking over them toward the harbour. One hand is in her pocket, her useless fingers fumbling with the smooth stone she found on the day she saw the finished painting. She is thinking of the canvas and its tempestuous nature, and wondering how, when she felt so in tune with him, she failed to recognise the chorus of nightingales he had woven into his brushstrokes.
As the light begins to fade, a sea mist rolls in, and the spiteful slap of the wind rushing up the street reminds her it will soon be autumn. She takes the pebble from her pocket and drops it. If she listens for long enough she will hear the siren song of her oboe rising from beneath the waves.
The title of this piece is taken from the poem ‘Aspens’ by Edward Thomas, 1915.