A Perfect Happiness
Extract from the novel A Perfect Happiness, Center for Basque Studies, Reno, 2006. Translated from Basque by Amaia Gabantxo. Originally published as Zorion perfektua, Alberdania, 2003.
Carmen Baroja Nessi
Without conscience we would be animals,
full of something like perfect happiness.
I closed the door and turned the light on. Even then, the staircase and hallway were in semi-darkness, because the dim lonesome bulb provided only a pitiful light, as always. There was a stale smell in the air, as always. I held the flap of the bag under my chin and put the scores in. I ran down the stairs, wanting to get away as quickly as possible. I needed to leave the scales and the arpeggios, the fingering, the piano teacher and the music academy behind.
The moment I stepped outside, a sharp, cold wind hit me in the face. I felt better. I turned up the lapels of my jacket and walked towards the beach instead of the path that led to the train station, which I took every evening. I could no longer hear the sounds of the piano. Will I see him today, I thought, my heart beating wildly, anticipating the possibility of bumping into the boy I fancied. My happiness did not last long. I remembered the threat my teacher had issued five minutes earlier:
"I won't be able to accept your application to take the exam at the conservatoire. Not until you've mastered Bonheur Parfait completely".
I groaned. I would never be able to perfect the mechanics of the last section of Schumann's piece, where the two hands must play as if they are talking to each other.
"The right hand must allow the left to take precedence, the left is the protagonist, the left is the protagonist, the left is the protagonist..."
Even today that is precisely my downfall: the need to concentrate on the left means that the right hand ends up playing without vigour, out of sync, sounding clunky. It is the lack of balance between the two that is the problem. My left is weak, and I have had to make a deliberate effort to improve it practically since the day I started playing. Thanks to the time and dedication I have poured into correcting my flaw I have no trouble playing with my left hand alone: I can play extremely technical one-hand passages equally well with my left or right hand; no one would think I am not left-handed. So the only difficulty I'm faced with is the intrinsic difficulty of the piece I chose to play. My trouble starts when the piece requires that the left takes precedence and the right only accompanies; on such occasions my right slackens and refuses to accompany the left. The right does not know how to be subservient to the left ? that is the problem. It is quite common among right-handed pianists, but unfortunately that offers little consolation.
To this day I can hear my teacher's words, complete with the turns of rhetoric that were so typical of her:
"When do they converge? Where do the incoming and outgoing tides meet? It can't be pinpointed, no one can say exactly when it happens, and yet this miracle has happened twice daily since the dawn of time. In the same way, one hand must allow the other to take over, exactly like the tides do. It can't be forced, it can't be detected, it must be done con sottigliezza, our ear must not be able to pick it up."
I love Schumann, his piano pieces in particular. I find them simple and natural: they are not difficult to play, they keys respond to the touch of the fingers effortlessly. But paradoxically, Schumann's pieces are difficult precisely because they are simple: if the piano is played without sottigliezza the music loses all its charm; at best it sounds only half-way there, not melancholic enough. And Schumann without the melancholy is not really Schumann.
I was stuck in that halfway place and could not submit to the melancholic trance some of Schumann's pieces demanded, especially Bonheur Parfait. When I started playing, I was always conscious of the imminent change of tone, and as a result could never concentrate on the score. Almost there! Now, right now! And when I arrived at that complicated turn the change would be too sudden, too brusque. Or too fast. Obvious enough, in any case, to my teacher's ears ? and mine, too.
My teacher would give me the same advice Schumann gave his lover Clara Wieck:
"You'll enjoy these pieces more if you forget about technique."
Instead of helping me, those words made me more nervous.
It wasn't easy for me; my way of playing the piano is more technical than intuitive. I'm not a virtuoso.
I would have to spend another year at the local secondary school. And, what was worse, I would have to keep going to the same music academy.
Another year of listening to my teacher's metaphors about tides.
The bells rang, dark and slow. One, two... up to eight. I looked at my wristwatch. It was in time with the toll of the bells. As usual in the evening, a man was closing the iron gates to stop junkies from spending the night under the church's front awning.
I started to walk faster; I knew that telling my mother the piano exercises had delayed me again would not appease her. She was obsessed with punctuality. Being on time was sacred: for my mother, life's inevitable unexpected events were mere excuses, unless irrefutable evidence was offered to the contrary.
The smell of rain clung to the falling dusk. Sombre clouds filled the sky and the wind rushing from the alleys between houses sounded like angry wasps. I dug my head between my shoulders and brought the lapels of my jacket closer to my cheeks.
From a small bar came the rasping voice of a well-known singer and the tic-tac-tac of a pinball machine.
I looked right and left to make sure none of my parents' acquaintances were around. Only a dark-haired man walked towards the bar. No one else. No risk. Sheltered under a balcony next to the bar, I lit a cigarette. I took the first drag avidly.
At that precise moment, a shadow dashes from the alley beside the bar. It approaches the dark-haired man. And then I hear, bang! a tiny explosion, a dry sound, like the noise shutters make when the wind hurls them against the wall again and again.
A scream drowns in the dark-haired man's throat, and he looks at me. My cigarette falls to the ground. His eyes seem about to explode, they shine like glass held against the light. He is staring at me. He opens his mouth: the smile on his face is silly and anguished at the same time. I doubt he knows what is happening to him. Then he starts to fall, very, very slowly, as if asking a silent question. His knees crack, and to avoid hitting the ground, he grabs at the only hold within reach: a concrete flowerpot, white with seagull droppings.
There are bunches of violet flowers on the flowerpot. A subtle vanilla scent emanates from them. Blood flows from the corner of the man's mouth. The voice of the well-known singer and the pinball machine have suddenly gone quiet.
I hear steps moving quickly towards me. I imagine what is about to happen. I press my fists against my mouth and shut my eyes. Bang! I hear again. Bang! Bang! I don't move. I can't. Even when car tires screech behind me I remain frozen.
At some point I open my eyes.
The man stands perfectly still, his hands stretched towards the flowerpot.
A seagull's shadow, flying from the open sea to the enclosed streets. The bird circles twice, tentatively, looking for a place to alight. It beats the air with its wings and heads seawards again. The wind blows tumultuously through the alleys, whirling plastic bags, dry leaves, sand.
Suddenly, the dark-haired man's body makes a noise like a very heavy bag hitting the floor.
His mouth is open, probably to allow his life to ebb away, more than for breathing. His eyes, however, are lost halfway between me and the flowerpot, and the two soft bags that underline them emphasize their darkness. He makes a small, futile movement, an attempt to lift his head off the ground. There is a strip of black leather around his neck, and, hanging from it, a lauburu, the Basque cross.
I shut my eyes again.
And I hear the man's head hitting the ground.
It is over.
I remember not crying, being unable to find a lament within. The dead man lay two metres from me. I was numb; I could only look at him. Some sort of emotion was lodged in my throat. It had travelled from the heart up. But I had no tears.
A tender, empty sentiment with no way of manifesting itself; that is the only way I can describe it.
My eyes followed the path of the blood flowing from the dead man's mouth: it ran from his face into the patterns on the flagstones and towards my feet.
I took a step back.
The red rivulet flowed quickly and started to blend with the dust under the flowerpot.
A few young people came out of the small bar in complete silence; their shadows scurried away, gradually shrinking against the wall. Maybe they wanted to become invisible.
I don't know how long I stood in front of the corpse, looking at the bloodstain forming on the pavement.
At one point, I realise I hear sirens approaching. They are only a noise, moving through the patterns of the streets, seeking a place to converge, like the blood on the pavement. One noise among many others. In no time, the sound, strong enough to silence the sea now, climbs over the curb and stops next to me. A second car arrives immediately afterward.
Three policemen step down from the first car, hands on their waists and eyes darting everywhere, assessing the risk. The ones in the second car place themselves strategically on street corners. When they think the situation is under control they signal to the first car and two more policemen step out. They walk out slowly and look right and left until they reach the dead man. Just as if someone had made a signal, as soon as the policemen arrive, people emerge from alleys and side streets, like cockroaches scuttling out of holes in an old, empty house. Fear is on their faces as they approach; they whisper to each other and try to remain hidden.
The police start shooing people away, shouting step back! step back! Two of them examine the area around the body while the other two cordon it off with red and white tape.
The whispers start off low but grow and grow until they become a more effective wall of separation from the dead man than the tape itself. The tape distances me from him, but the onlookers' curiosity and babbling upset me.
I feel the need to escape. I must leave, run far away from here, hide in the black night like the blood hid under the flowerpot. I must get into a cinema and listen to an hour and a half of bang! bang!, enough for a lifetime, and eat popcorn and drink Coke to my heart's content.
But my legs do not respond.
My head tells me to get away from there, to get away from there, but my legs cannot follow the command, I have no strength, I cannot move. The sound of more sirens fills the street. Nurses step out of ambulances, carrying bags of blood and stretchers. More police. Step back! Everybody step back now! A photographer comes closer; he's weedy and fashionably dressed and has a cigarette between his lips. He passes under the red and white tape and his camera flashes twice. His cigarette is finished and he throws it away. The butt hits the ground, creating little sparks. The photographer steps on the butt.
No more sparks.
He looks towards me with one eye half-closed, thinking something. He is no longer around. Suddenly I hear psst! behind me. I turn back, away from the dead man. He is there again, with his camera.
The flash blinds me.
He gives me a friendly wink. He turns and leaves as suddenly as he arrived.
Š An Anthology of Basque Short Stories: Center for Basque Studies
Š Zorion perfektua: Alberdania