Edward George, the taciturn, morose, elderly man from the flat above, who had only been invited to the dinner-party to forestall any complaints he might make about the noise, and who, as was clear from his reluctance to join in the general conversation about the topics of the moment, namely, political corruption, rising property prices, and the deleterious effects of climate change, had nothing in common with any of us, suddenly piped up when one of the guests asserted, rather naively, I thought, that music, being the universal language of mankind, has the power to forge a bond between the most contrary of people and thus to help solve those global problems that rarely yield to more conventional methods.
“So,” said Mr George, with a chuckle from the back of his throat, “if we all sing ‘a song of sixpence’ we can abolish the United Nations tomorrow, you think?”
As no one took up the question, which was put in a rather rude and offhand manner to our friend, Mr George went on, quite calmly, to say: “I hate music – all music,” leaving us all a bit nonplussed as he proceeded to roll a cigarette.
“I could tell you a story, though, about the … the so-called power of music, if you’d like me to,” he added soon after, before puffing on his cigarette, closing his eyes, and assuming a dream-like expression.
I took my chance to study him a little better, this odd person who had suddenly become garrulous after an hour and a half of silence. Given the place of honour precisely because he knew none of the five men and five women present – friends or lovers all – Mr George could never belong to ‘our gang’, as we liked to call ourselves. He was, as we had been forewarned, merely the awkward old man from upstairs who would bang on the floorboards above us every time we played music, unless, that is, he were invited to the party. To our hostess’s surprise he had accepted immediately. About seventy, he had the look of a long-faded hippy: a loosely hanging shirt; lank thin hair still worn long; and an austere face, lined and encrusted with old dirt, like that of a desert hermit. I liked him.
“Well, go on, Mr George, tell us your story,” our hostess said, at last forcing him to open his eyes, his dream dispelled. We all seconded this, eager to know why he hated music so much. Our hostess even turned off the player, which anyway had hardly been audible all evening, doubtless a concession to Mr George’s sensibilities.
“If life is better than death,” he began, in a tone that suggested he was not himself sure that it was, “then music does have great power for good, I’ll admit that much.”
He sipped at his wine and then began to roll another cigarette, so I handed him one of my own, impatient for his story.
“Nineteen sixty-seven. I existed, you lot didn’t. I was young, strong, daring – and I had a motorbike,” he began. “In those days a young man with a motorbike had no choice but to ride off across Europe and Asia for a few months. You’re in France, and so you go to Italy. After Italy, Yugoslavia. Then Greece and Turkey. You see that Iraq is next to Turkey, Iraq to Iran, Iran to Afghanistan, and so on to India. Anyway, four months after setting off I take a cart track off the main road, itself not much more than a cart track, and pull into a village in Rajasthan at sunset. I’m hungry, dirty, tired, and almost out of money. The village is just a collection of primitive cottages spread haphazardly on either side of the cart track. As far as the eye can see there’s nothing but scrubby desert, flat but for a few mounds here and there. The sunset is beautiful, though, and the pale moon is already visible: the lunar desert reduces all your desires to nothing. It’s nothing like Croydon, which is where I was brought up. Standing there in the silent village, I knew that this was the end: I would have to persuade my brother to wire me money, and then I would fly back to England. I could flog my motorbike – or give it away: it was all one to me.”
Mr George closed his eyes again and after a minute went on, eyes still closed: “At first it was only the children who approached me, curious about the stranger in their midst. And then a few women gazed at me from the dark wells of their doorways. At last a man appeared – he even spoke a few words of English. He was, it turned out, the village elder. He immediately invited me to his home, where his wife and daughters fussed about me as if I were a returning son, their ankle bells tinkling constantly. Perhaps they would have been as kind to any stranger. They fed me, gave me a room to sleep in – windowless and completely bare except for a thin mattress on the floor. Before going to sleep I tried to give the last of my money to my host, but he just turned away, as though I had offended him. I was a little feverish and could feel a migraine coming on. During the night I gulped down numerous mouthfuls of bitter water from the large jug they’d left in the corner. In the morning the jug, which I’d emptied, was full again and there was food, just by my head. I was still feverish but I forced myself to drink and eat. These extremely courteous and hospitable people …,” he said, lowering his voice, as if he were embarrassed.
He opened his eyes and gazed at us, assuring himself that we were listening, though none of us had missed a word.
“It was past dawn,” he soon continued, closing his eyes once more, “as I could tell from the sharp blades of light that came through the gaps in the door and sliced the air to my feet. Early for me, of course, but late for them, whose day begins with the sun. I sat up and listened: nothing, not even the bells of the goats that roamed the edges of the village or the voices of the children playing. No whistling of the wind that stirs up the desert during the night. The sort of silence that has its own noiseless noise and that can make you afraid, if nothing comes to break it up. I jumped up, slapped my arms against my body, touched my toes, splashed water over my face – but I couldn’t conquer the silence. I left my room – the house was empty. I stepped outside – the street was empty. I called out – there seemed to be no one in the village at all. It was like the Marie Celeste. Was I dreaming – or had I been abandoned here, perhaps forever? My motorbike was where I’d left it, in the shade of the wall of my host’s house. I thought about leaving without saying goodbye. I couldn’t sully their image of Englishmen forevermore, though, not after their kindness. So I wandered round the place, dusty, quiet, deserted, as charmless as it had been on first sight the evening before. As I have said, the landscape was all scrub and sand, flat but for a mound or two. There was nothing for me to do but wander towards one of these, about half a mile away. I would sit in its shade, smoke a cigarette, and wait for them all to return from wherever they’d disappeared to. And then I would part from them properly, ride off to Delhi, and then go home – once my brother had sent the money. These thoughts doused the fever that was burning me from inside. But only for a moment – as I walked my head throbbed with pain, each step taking me higher on a migraine mountain. When I reached the mound – the rock, as I now saw – it was far bigger than it had appeared from the village. I began to move round it, aiming to come to the side away from the sun, where I could at least sit in the shade. Dry grass, shrubs and gnarled dwarf trees grew out of the cracks and crevices in the rock, or, rather, great jumble of rocks, piled on top of one another, as if placed there by a giant.
“It was then that I heard the voices, just as I came onto the shady side. I slowed my walk, then stood still: everyone was there, the men, women and children, even the goats, whose bells tinkled as they shook their heads against the clouds of flies that assailed them. Two hundred or so people: the whole village. A dark pool at the base of the rock – probably the source of the bitter water I had drunk. By the pool a tree, stunted, gnarled and leafless, but still twice the height of a man. Most of the people formed a semicircle centred on the tree. Underneath the tree sat a youth, his feet and hands bound with rope. By him stood the elder, my host, who was declaiming something to the people, or at least to two small groups that were standing in front of the others and a few yards from each other. It was then that I saw the wooden stretcher, really just a wide plank, on which lay the shrouded body of a young man. His face had been exposed so that the crowd could see with their own eyes what terrible injuries he had suffered – a terrific blow from a rock or some other weapon. I sat down, lit a cigarette, coughed. Everyone turned to look at me, and then everyone turned away. I was irrelevant.
“The elder finished his declamation. The bound boy bowed his head. The family that made up one of the groups began to wail; the family that made up the other group seemed to implore them. The others waited; the elder waited. As was their right, the family of the dead man would not accept the blood-money offered to them, this much was clear. If it was impossible to buy the hospitality of these people, as I had found out last night, then how much more impossible it would be to pay for the death of a son, even one killed in a moment’s heat, just a trivial fight while the two of them guarded the goats in the night, or some such tale. The condemned boy’s parents and sisters began to wail in turn, beating their chests, striding back and forth, unable to calm themselves. The elder shouted at them, brought silence to the proceedings. He then gestured towards the shadow of the rock, out of which stepped two men, bare to the waist, muscular, glistening with sweat. One of them climbed the tree a little to swing a rope over the thickest branch. He tied the rope, a dirty, frayed thing that must have been used to tether goats, and gave it a firm tug, just to make sure, before leaping to the ground. The tree vibrated for a moment. The rope had already been tied into a noose. It swung gently above the boy, who waited in silence. The two executioners flexed their muscles involuntarily, smiled nervously, as if they hoped someone else would step forward and take their place. The elder nodded sharply at them and they became statues. I drew on my cigarette and, despite a blinding headache, was able to calculate that even if the boy were to stretch his toes to the maximum he would still clear the ground by a good foot. No one turned at the sound of my retching. It was almost a relief to have the bitter water out of me.”
Mr George ceased speaking for a while. It was as if he had forgotten that we were there. None of us spoke, though, or made any movement at all.
“The silence that had so disturbed me an hour before now filled me with a vast sadness,” he went on. “I felt lonely, too, more lonely than I’d ever been, as if I’d become loneliness itself. I wanted to leave that place immediately, come home at once… This isn’t about me, though, it’s all about the power of music that you want to hear. Well then, the elder, a true gentleman of the desert, but also judge, jury and executioner in a world that he could not allow to get out of control, if he were to protect that world from collapse, well, he granted the boy a last request, a last cigarette, so to speak. The boy asked for his flute. A young girl, his sister, stepped forward and handed it to him and then ran back to hide in the skirts of her mother. He must have given it to her as a parting gift, something to remember him by. And so the boy had his wish.”
Mr George laughed loudly, then he seemed to weep a little, though quietly.
“Oh yes,” he went on, his composure restored, “the power of music: all these John Lennons and Yoko Onos and their bed-ins … for peace, for love. It doesn’t compare, it doesn’t compare. I was trying not to look or listen, but still I raised my head, pricked up my ears. They had unbound the boy’s hands. He blew into his flute a few times and then held it ready before his lips. The whole earth was silent. All I could hear was my own breathing and the pounding in my temples. And then he began to play his flute, for a good five, ten, fifteen minutes, an eternity, the time doesn’t matter: there was no time anymore, I tell you.”
Our strange guest lapsed into silence, but this time it seemed as if he really had become lost for good in some dream that possessed him. With eyes closed, he swayed gently back and forth in the dim light of the ground floor flat, whose value had risen by thirty percent in a year, typical of this newly fashionable area of London, as we had been discussing less than an hour ago, none of which seemed to touch Mr George in the world to which he had returned, far away from us, far away from everyone.
After an age had passed he spoke, quite calmly, whether to us or to himself alone, as follows: “As I sat there listening to the boy playing for his life I felt as if I were far out at sea, floundering, about to go under, when unexpectedly, miraculously, a gentle wave came from somewhere and carried me towards the shore, gradually but surely, carried me till I was safe… And then it was finished. No one had moved. The boy put down his flute and bowed his head. He seemed calm, resigned, ready.
“The mother and sisters of the dead boy all began to weep, rushed towards the elder, whom they surrounded. It was the miracle of music – they would accept the blood-money. That much I could understand. It didn’t matter if it was money, or property, or goats, or whatever, they would accept because they could not find it in their hearts to kill something that had so moved them. The family of the flute player, the other onlookers, the executioners, everyone was weeping – the elder himself was weeping.”
Our friend, whose thesis that music could move the world had brought about Mr George’s intervention, was elated: “See, what did I tell you, if a little tune can cause a family to forgive their son’s murderer, then what can’t the power of music do?”
Mr George shook his head: “You don’t understand, son. Let me finish my story. Five minutes after this the flute player, whose melody has haunted me for fifty years, was indeed swinging at the end of the rope, quite dead. You see, it isn’t enough to touch the emotions of a few women and children – they don’t count. It’s the father, the head of the household, who decides. And in this case he wasn’t having any of it. The elder knew this – knew the protocol. He approached the angry little man who had stood his ground, who had not beaten his breast or wailed, who had stood quite still, waiting for justice. The elder began gesturing to him, desperately trying to persuade him that here there were grounds for mercy, as the rest of his family had recognised. That was the gist of the little scene taking place before me, as it dawned on me that … oh you should have seen him cup his hands to his ears … as I realised … realised that the father of the dead boy was stone-deaf! He’d heard nothing at all. Thump, thump, thump! he pounded his stick into the ground. He’d lost his only son. Thump, thump, thump! And what use were three daughters without a son? Every thump meant: no. No, no, no!
“You see,” he continued, “time oppresses us all, except, now and again, in those few moments when it is made bearable. And it is only music, those long slow melancholy notes that I heard in the desert and that brought me safely home to the shore, that has the power to make time bearable, music that conquers time because music itself is made of time and can forgive time for the evil that it brings. But, alas, what if the world is a deaf old man?”
Mr George left the party without answering his own question. Our hostess put on some music to cheer us up, something upbeat, but on this occasion the music had no power to lift our spirits.
Andreas Smith works as a freelance technical and marketing editor and writer. He has had articles published in The Guardian and The Times. Having written several novels, he was recently signed up by a London-based literary agency. He lives in County Durham in the north of England.
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