Wednesday, 1 May 2013

The Silver Chain of Sound

‘Bill – please switch that off!’
            We were approaching a junction. ‘Lost your taste for the classics?’
            ‘No. Of course not. It’s a lovely piece. Reminds me of …. But they play it at least once every day on this channel. One day they’ll play it to death.’
            I could see her point. It was an ‘easy listening’ station that certainly didn’t set out to challenge its listeners. I turned it off.
            Mary fell silent as I negotiated the traffic.
            ‘Reminds you of something, you say? Or someone?’
            I sensed her brief nod. ‘Yes. Benbo. It reminds me of a special time with Benbo. So when I listen to it, I have to be in a particular sort of mood. And alone.’
            We said little more for the rest of the journey. Both lost in our thoughts, I guess, and in our grieving. She for her husband and I for a much loved younger brother. Ahead of us lay the painful task of going through his papers and other, more personal belongings.
            The music stayed with me as we worked and sorted together. When at last she spoke again as we sipped coffee on her patio it was clear that her mind had been caught up just as had mine. It was as if our exchange in the car had happened only moments ago.
            ‘It was the day you went whale-watching, off the peninsula on the south-east coast. Benbo hadn’t the strength to join you. He said the drugs were making him quite sick enough without the effects of heaving around on an open boat.’
            ‘Yes. I remember. The gale had blown itself out overnight, and it was a fine day. But the sea was wild enough. We did see the whales, but they were miles off. It’s not something I’d do again in a hurry.’
            ‘I never told you what Benbo and I did while you were out there.’ Her expression spoke of a treasured memory.
            I waited. I sensed that she wanted to share something with me. But she didn’t speak immediately. Instead she went to a drawer in her desk and took from it a disc. I had a feeling that it was the Vaughan Williams, and I was right. This time we sat together in silence for a quarter of an hour and heard it right through to its last, vanishing cadence.
            Mary began to talk again. Softly and lovingly. ‘It cost him such an effort to walk even the half mile on to the meadows that surround the light-house. But at last we got where he wanted to. It was a place he’d always loved. I think he knew that this would be the last time. I sat on the grass and cradled his head on my lap, running my fingers through the little that was left of his hair. His eyes closed, but the look of ecstasy on his face was something that I will keep with me for always. Dear Benbo – his sight was almost gone then. But even I could not have seen what he would have sought in the sky, so vanishingly small it had become. “Poor old Bill,” he murmured. ‘He must be as sick as a dog out there. And how could whales – all the whales in the ocean, compare with that?”’
            ‘He always saw the best in the smallest things. He had a gift for it’.
            ‘Uh-huh’, Mary nodded. ‘The smallest things. And on that afternoon it was in the song of the smallest of birds that I think he had his first glimpse of heaven’.
*  *  *
He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound.
From George Meredith (1828-1918)
The Lark Ascending.