I AM RECOVERING. From what, no one can say for certain. But we all agree on the remarkable progress I am making. I can once again stand to hear my thoughts as my own, in my own voice, without any interference. I can listen to that little voice of mine all day in fact, its monologues and digressions, free from all the previous torment.
I might even say it is a pleasant voice; a voice of quiet reassurance, lulling me through the long hours of my day, tending to memory like a nurse to a sutured wound.
I’m staying somewhere called The Citadel, a sort of hospital retreat in a small village near Sherborne in Dorset. I like it here. The view from my bedroom window looks out on to the garden, and beyond that an orchard, and then a small wood further off in the distance.
I must be getting better. Clearly, I am.
I sometimes wonder what I ever had to fear in the first place?
Well, according to Dr Crawford. T Farrow, the man looking after me, I had a great deal to fear. ‘You have an obsessive personality,’ he tells me.
‘Well yes, of course I do. It comes with the job,’ I tell him. Which sounds presumptive, given that my career up to now has been a fledgling at best. I am a film editor by trade and it would seem by nature too. However, I’ve never considered the strange series of events leading me into Farrow’s care as having anything to do with my work.
Dr Farrow disagrees. He says the exhaustion and the strain I put myself under, added to the extended periods of solitude, formed a sort a psychological void into which an addictive trait has buried itself. I tell him there’s little to refute in that, but that I might just be a product of my time. ‘You cannot create a convincing standard of normalcy to compare me against, when the effects of our technological climate on the psyche are so ill-defined’. He objects to this on rather serious grounds. And as such, we’ve been getting along quite well for the last few months.
I never started off wanting to be an editor. Before film school, I saw myself as an artist. I wanted to direct. I saw myself growling behind a cigar as I orchestrated visions into flesh. However, my personality was deemed ‘unconducive’ to a safe and productive atmosphere on the set. In my second year, I was encouraged to transfer my energies to the editing room and since then that’s all I’ve done; cannibalising the visions of others.
I started off in ads, turning that over for a couple of years: dogfood, deodorant, life insurance; then odd-jobs on short films and the occasional television drama. It was around this time I began what Dr Farrow refers to as my years of ‘social wilderness’. It was then I became morbidly afraid of silence.
Anytime I needed to be away from my desk – either the days waiting for the director to get back to me on some decision or other, or the weeks one often has to wait between jobs – I needed to work out a system for preventing quietude from rearing its ugly head.
I began to build walls of sound around me. I slept with low-level music every night in case I was faced with the horror of the night’s silence. I washed up to lectures and chat show interviews, brushed my teeth with podcasts and never left the house outside of rush hour without earphones and every device fully charged. I owned five radios, each set up in different rooms around the flat, and three televisions.
One might think this an impossible way of carrying on, but the most shocking part, was how easily the system fit in with my daily life. At least that’s how it was for the first two years. My family and what friends I still had at first just thought I was focussing on my career, and so permitted a respectful distance. But in time, the gaps between visits and meetings became wider and my life seemed reduced to a few scant components.
The events in question, however, developed from a single morning, nearly five months ago now. I was working on a film directed by a woman I knew at film school called Lorna Symons. It was her feature debut as a director. I was hesitant to take the job, at first. Not because it was her first film, but that I was once in love with her, at least I thought I was, and worse than that, she was in love with me. For reasons I won’t go into, things ended badly with us. It took a long time to come to terms with the experience, but eventually it all found its way to the back of my mind.
We fell out of contact after graduation, as was the case with everyone, until she contacted me one day having heard about my work. I had built something of a reputation for myself then as one of the fastest editors in London. Owing not in fact to some preternatural agility, but from my never unplugging myself from the desk.
So it was, calling her one Monday morning, the news on the radio playing in the background, to tell her I had finished the first three scenes, that my reputation proved all it was worth.
‘Already?’ she said, ‘But I only gave them to you on Friday. We haven’t even started filming the next scene yet. Are you sure you don’t want to look at them again?’
I was sure, so I decided to wait for the next few scenes to arrive. It struck me as odd at the time that we were editing the film as it was being shot, though I believe it had something to do with time constraints as part of the arts funding agreement. Either way, I felt I ought to get the flat in order. I turned a radio on in each room and got to work on the washing-up. They had on an episode from the archives of Desert Island Discs. I can still recall it from memory:
–My castaway this week is the internationally renowned concert pianist, Ivan Poliakov. Born in St Petersburg in 1915, Poliakov fled what would later be called Leningrad in 1924, moving variously across Europe, before settling in England in 1936, where he has been a resident ever since. Mr Poliakov, thank you for joining us.
-It is a pleasure, thank you very much for having me.
-Mr Poliakov, you have said that, for you, the line between music and life is almost imperceptible, and that the private and public spheres consolidate when you are on stage. To what extent would you say your selection today is autobiographical?
-Well, yes, that is a very interesting question and I should like to illustrate this, if I may, with a story regarding my first selection.
-Your first selection being Gute Nacht from Franz Schubert’s Winterreise?
-That is correct, yes. The enchanting version by Benjamin Britten, sung by Peter Pears. Perhaps the most perfect example of a romantic as well as artistic partnership. Theirs is the supreme example of this consolidation I speak of. But again, if I may tell a story of my own.
You see, I learned to play the piano parts for Winterreisewhen I was a very young child and played them often. I became a little obsessed by the work. My first recital was performed when I believe I was nine or ten years old, with a man from Tulln – a small town not far from the banks of the Danube. He was a kindly man, a merchant, with a reasonable if not especially fine voice. The reason this episode is so significant to me is that he often brought his young daughter, who must have been seven or eight years old at the time, along to watch. And it is significant as this was I believe the first time I ever truly fell in love.
Naturally, we were not permitted to speak to each other or spend any time together at all. She would sit with us as we rehearsed, I remember she was on the armchair with her book and this little plain dress on, with err…a sort of bob-cut hairstyle, as girls had then. A little Jewish girl, as beautiful as any girl I had ever seen. And I would play, and her father would begin to sing, and I would play these very violent and beautiful chords of Schubert’s, as if they were written only for her.
-Of course, at eleven years old I did not really know what I was playing. Technically I knew, but Winterreise is really a work meant to be performed by older men. I then began to play the chords more and more violently, to impress her I think, until her father and my tutor at the time, a dreadful old brute, chided me over my playing. The singer could not be heard above the great racket I made.
But I would look up when I could, to see if those eyes of hers were on me and if they were, my heart would flutter so that I had to keep from falling out of tempo.
It was many years later I learned that the girl and her father were killed during the war. One of the camps, I believe, though I admit I have forgotten which. Perhaps this is why it took me so many years to return to performing lieder. But it is also why this music haunts and torments, and yet delights me to such a great extent. I think I should not do very well without it.
It is here that the finer points of the story begin to smoke into the recesses of my memory. In my meetings with Dr Farrow, he induces, or attempts to induce these very points through conversation. However, the more I dig, the more like arrowheads these points become buried, as I scramble and scrabble in the dirt to recover them.
I know, after I heard the programme, that a seemingly unending cycle began for me. While awaiting Lorna’s next scenes. I would listen to this beginning of the interview, then load up the full version of that particular recital. I did this almost constantly for three days until the scenes came through.
As I watched, and began to piece the new footage together, I would listen to the music as I did so. I thought maybe I could edit the scene in time to the music. It seemed plausible as it concerned a violent assault on the heroine of the film, at the hands of an older man, her lover. The trouble was that the footage consisted entirely of short close-ups, mostly from the victim’s point of view. The beauty of Gute Nacht, as I understand it, is in the contrast between the long rising and falling of the voice, and the sharp, yet mournful notes of the piano. I tried to match it only to the piano, but still it wouldn’t fit.
Several days went by, but I refused to tear myself from this idea. I ignored phone calls and messages of all kinds. I hardly eat, slept or even bathed. I somehow had to make it fit. I sought guidance from Lorna’s notes but found myself trudging through what was essentially an essay on the ideas of the scene. A lot of French theory and abstractions on inverting entitled perspective; rogue anthropology of little use to me. I remember thinking Lorna too focussed on this sort thing at film school when we were meant to be acquiring the ‘hows’ rather than the ‘whys’ of the art.
At a loss as to how to proceed, I ran myself a bath and put the record on again. I began to chant along as I lay there. It is still to this day the only German I know, but I know it perfectly.
Nurse Helen arrives as I’m thinking this over, to bring me my lunch. She has a large tray in her hands, with buttered eggs, soup and bread.
‘And how are you feeling today Benjamin?’
‘Very well thank you. And you Helen?’
‘Oh you are kind to ask. I really mean in the medical sense. You’ve been awfully quiet up here.’
‘Isn’t that the idea?’
‘Well, yes. But Dr Farrow thinks you might like something to balance things out. Is there some music or we can wheel in the television?’
‘No, that’s quite alright Helen. I’m enjoying the quiet.’
‘Right you are. Well, here’s your lunch.’
‘Thank you, Helen.
I hesitate again, because the following is only known to me by what others have repeated back to me. According to Dr Farrow, it was at this time the obsession grew into delusion. While listening to Schubert’s song, I began to hear the voices from the interview over the top; a sort of aural palimpsest.
Was soll ich länger weilen
later I learned that the
Daß man mich trieb hinaus?
girl and her father were?
Laß irre Hunde heulen
killed during the war
Vor ihres Herren Haus!
One of the camps!
Whether I believe this or not, I’m not sure. But consensus is persuasive, so I will tell according to what they say.
The hallucinations intensified as I struggled more and more to marry the music to the images. The messages piled up. At times, I would listen to one item, say the dialogue from the scene, and the isolated piano chords would drown out the voices; creeping up like footsteps climbing stairs. Sometimes, the violent cries of the film’s heroine would interrupt Poliakov’s soft-spoken tale.
It was then I stopped listening to either the programme or the music, and decided to focus on editing the scene, returning to the usual podcasts and chat shows I used before.
It was while trying to cut between a shot of the attacker, to one of the heroine shrinking away, the most dreadful thing of all occurred. First came the sound, clear as in the room, of dogs barking, the Hunde heule of the song, I suppose. Then, silence.
I took the headphones off and looked about the room. I already knew there was nothing there, but the situation had affected my nerves. I put the headphones back on. Complete silence. I turned the volume up on my laptop as loud as they would go, but still nothing; not so much as a hiss. I rushed over to the radio, finding the same dull, heavy absence pouring out. I lifted a pot from beside the sink and rapped it against the counter. I imagine at that moment I began to scream into the silence. The last thing I remember is the front door opening and a figure standing in the doorway; a shadow against the yellow light in the frame.
The guiding principle of confession is acknowledgement; both in its etymology and in practise. To confess is not only to admit what you did but admitting what you know. As such, Dr Farrow draws out the last of the toxins.
When Lorna found me, and I say this only having seen the police statement, I may just as well have been dreaming; a nightmarish inversion of acoustic shock. She said I responded with only my eyes, like a silent film actor to her silhouette in the key light. I saw on the computer screen, the footage of the two shots running on a loop; the attacker, the victim, the attacker, the victim.
It turns out, by way of digression, that Poliakov’s merchant and the beautiful daughter did not die in the camps. I looked it up. The merchant, his wife and son having disappeared without his knowing where, took the girl to the banks of the Danube and drowned himself and the girl, holding her as they sank beneath the water.
The water in my bathtub had been left undrained for days. Stone grey. I cannot believe I let things degenerate to such an extent. I cannot quite believe any of it. I refuse to believe I drowned her.
Wet hair, and the frightened tears running down her cold wet cheeks. The water-shrouded screams. The furrowed brow of the policeman, his torch sweeping across my eyes, checking for signs of who knows what in my expression.
Dr Farrow has shown exceptional forbearance in getting me even this far. Still, I’m not all that sure of its significance. Nor, do I think, is Dr Farrow. Only I’ve been here some time now, and no will say how long it will be before they let me out. It was Summer when I first arrived, I remember. Now, snow falls heavy on the garden, falls heavy on the orchard and the woods. Rooks hang above the dreadful white prospect. All that’s missing is the sound of dogs; their howls echoing on the silent snow.
First published here at monk.gallery