This Side of Silence by AV Bruce

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A child looking at a woodwind instrument

29.5.1987

David has AIDS, the letter says. He went into hospital last week with pneumonia.

I freeze. What is this?

He’s in the Middlesex Hospital, Broderip Ward.

An A6 sheet of greenish paper, written with biro in a disjointed hand. I turn it over. It’s from Rowena, who also has baroque oboe lessons with David Reichenberg. We met two years ago, when I started learning with him. She adds the number to call if I want to visit.

There’s no need to write he’s going to die. That’s what having AIDS means.

The sweater over my shoulders suddenly feels much too hot. Everything around me—the pigeonholes full of mail, the flagstones, the oak door to the Lodge of University College, Oxford—is blacked out, as if the letter were in a spotlight. A robust young man bumps into me, all spicy scent overlaid with sweat.

“Sorry.”

I look up, but he hasn’t waited. He’s wearing a dark suit and a white tie that hangs down his shirtfront like a scarf, so he’s been sitting exams.

“Yah yah yah,” he drawls to a friend. “I just winged that question.” He’d had a Welsh lilt in his first year. Oxford is where you decide who you want to be.

I stare at my letter. David has AIDS. David, who loves dressing outrageously. Who whistled the Queen of the Night aria at the Wigmore Hall on April Fool’s Day. Whose oboe can hold a hall spellbound. The last time I heard him play, he crackled with energy. That was two months ago.

A friendly don saunters across the sunlit quad towards me. He talks, and I smile on autopilot. Can’t he see that everything has gone mad? It should be scribbled in the sky: David is dying of AIDS. AIDS is an incurable disease, and it makes you untouchable, like leprosy.

***

I go to see Andrew. (Saying “my boyfriend Andrew” wouldn’t feel right, although we’ve been dating for a while, and he made a good impression on my academic parents.) Andrew researches, and talks a lot about, eighteenth century America. He’s been encouraging me to stay on for research, too. He has a sitting room of pleasing proportions, full of old, waxed wood. I sink into the sofa and tell him about Rowena’s letter, and he edges away to his desk.

“Were you surprised?” His voice cracks. “Did you know he was a homosexual?”

“Yes, of course.”

What is Andrew scared of?

He clears his throat. “I know how fond you are of him. But it’ll be a shame if you let this affect your work.”

I twist the piping on the seat cushion. Andrew is sensible, but I wish he would just comfort me.

“I do hope you’ll go on with your lessons.”

I gape. What does he mean? How can I go on with my lessons? David isn’t just some teacher. He’s David. He’s dying.

***

I ring Rowena from Univ’s callbox, a stuffy, grey cubicle squashed in under Staircase VI. Above the phone is one of the ubiquitous jellied posters for Ubu Roi.

“How did he get taken into hospital?”

“The English Concert’s General Manager found him in his flat with pneumonia and called an ambulance. She was the only person who knew he had AIDS. They thought he might die then, but he pulled through. And then he said, ‘I want people to know now.’”

I wind the handset cord round the base of the telephone. Where it meets the corner, the metal wrapping is broken; you can slide it up and down round the wires inside. “Have you seen him?”

“I’ve been to the hospital.” Rowena hisses the “s” of “hospital” through her chipped tooth. “But it’s awful. Everyone is squabbling.”

“With David?”

“Outside his room. His parents have come over from the States and they want to be with him all the time. And there are all these colleagues who want to talk to him by themselves, and this healer who’s all over David, and his parents can’t stand the healer. Nor can I. He’s too intense. What David needs is peace and quiet.”

“Have you seen him? How is he?”

“He’s very tired. I haven’t had much time with him.”

Someone bangs on the door of the phone cubicle, miming rage. I flap my hand at them.

“The thing is, he can’t die now. He still has to have a child.”

“What?”

“He told me he saw a medium once who said he would father a child. So he can’t die yet.”

The cubicle door opens, and a giant rower leans in. “There’s a queue out here.”

“I’m sorry, Rowena, I have to go. I’ll call again.”

***

That night, I bury my face in the dusty cushions on my bed and scream. None of my housemates reacts. In this third year of my four-year degree, I live with other students in a Victorian villa where onions are fried in relays each evening. My room is long and thin, with windows opening onto a tiny balcony. The music centre beside my bed takes up most of the width of it. I put on one of my favourites among David’s recordings: Handel’s Concerti Grossi Opus 3, with slow movements that showcase David at his most lyrical. Three concerti per side of a record. It’s terribly final, how an LP finishes. The last bars slow up to the final chord, there’s a click, a whirr as the turntable slows, then the hum of the record-player at rest.

***

I’d first heard David at a concert in the Sheldonian Theatre in my first term at Oxford. I’d been playing the oboe since I was ten, and I was sceptical of historical instruments, but cheap seats cost only £4. The pointed bows made violins sound raw. I squirmed on the oaken bench, easing my cramped knees away from the gallery wall. Suddenly, an oboe sang out, limpid and incisive, like a Margarita cocktail. The perfect oboe sound.

Later that term, David led a weekend event in the Music Faculty’s Bate Collection. He was slighter than I’d realised, compact and slim, in rolled-up jeans and Chinese cloth shoes, with the controlled physicality of a dancer and the alertness of a small bird. At close quarters, I caught a scent that reminded me of the Diorella my mother wore. He and his colleagues Dick and Lorraine gave us students reeds for the eighteenth-century oboes in the Collection and helped us play them. When we were exhausted, they sat on bar stools and talked about old oboes. They were friends. Everyone they talked about was a friend of theirs.

“There’s no recipe for baroque oboe reeds,” David said.

“Mary Kirkpatrick’s copied the reeds in old paintings,” Lorraine said.

David opened his eyes wide. “Mary making reeds!”

They laughed, and so did I. I’d never met anyone with so much zest for life. I asked Dick, who built oboes, if he would make one for me. It would take until the next summer; David said I could come to the course he taught on in Portugal in August.

***

I started playing in student concerts. I took the St Matthew Passion to a lesson with my modern oboe teacher, Tess. The opening bars of I would beside my Lord be watching, she said, had been the Leipzig night-watchman’s call.

Tess had a soft, husky voice. “I think that’s what the Gospels are all about: waking up—coming alive.”

Music was about coming alive, too.

***

My baroque oboe arrived two weeks before David’s course in Portugal, and I travelled down with Rowena through France and Spain. As the trains dwindled in status, we opened up to each other. Rowena had a more serious crush on David than I did. She lived just a couple of streets away from him and did housework in exchange for lessons.

“I did a load of washing for him last week,” she told me. “The bottom of his cupboard was piled up with shirts. He’d never washed any of them. He just gets new ones from the Camden Market.”

“Did you wash them all?”

“Yes,” Rowena hissed. “By hand. And ironed them. It took hours.”

On the morning of day three, we clambered, shivering, into a dingy Portuguese train. As it strained up through terraces of vines, Rowena told me David was diabetic, and also that he was gay. I hadn’t realised. She seemed gloomily philosophical about it. I felt sad, but it had been salutary, listening to Rowena. No one was worth hand-washing a huge pile of shirts for.

***

The course was in a dilapidated villa above the Douro valley. Sunlight filled the main courtyard, and its flagstones scorched our sandals, but the teaching rooms were dusty and smelt of damp, so that if you leant on the walls, you felt you were meeting a dead thing.

David sat on a chair, resting the arch of his right foot on his left thigh. Once a lesson was underway, he would tuck his left foot onto his right thigh, a casual bodhisattva in cloth shoes and black sweatpants. His breathing exercises were unlike any I knew. I was used to filling my lungs and forcing my tummy out to support my sound. David wanted us to be “floppy.” We played long notes and noticed what happened to our bodies. Did we sway about? Did we adjust how our feet took our weight? We had to play to someone. He pointed to the Winnie-the-Pooh pencil case holding his reed-making equipment.

“Play into Pooh’s eyes.”

***

One morning, David looked tired and unwashed. At coffee time, he joined the scrum in the little bar, holding himself apart, apparently serene. As one body after another pushed in front of him, I watched him draw breath and settle his shoulders. Suddenly I saw this was no calmness, but a kindling fire under wraps. Then one violinist too many took David’s place at the counter.

“Fucking Hell!” He plunged through the crowd and disappeared into the sunlight.

“He’s gone,” Rowena said, when I came out with a croissant for him.

We were worried, knowing David had to watch his blood sugar, but when he reappeared, he had showered and changed into a baggy pink and purple shirt and matching shorts, topped off with green sunglasses and a straw trilby. Rowena said he was wearing Eau Sauvage; she’d seen it in his bathroom.

The gamba teacher gaped theatrically. “That’s outrageous.”

“I know.” David struck a camp pose and threw himself into entertaining his admirers. By the evening, he had started a flirtation with a young Dutch violinist. The next day, the violinist said he hadn’t slept at all.

***

30.5.1987

I go to see my tutor George, who is tweedy and beaky-nosed and chews on a pipe. In my second year, after my previous boyfriend dumped me, he had plied me with sherry.

“Don’t worry about why, Abigail. He probably doesn’t know himself. Young men don’t grow up till they’re thirty-five.”

George is sixty-seven. David is thirty-six.

I adore George. He and his wife, Pat, have been kind to me this year, inviting me to their home as if I were family. One evening, George told me he used to have a crush on Ginger Rogers and he did a little dance in the kitchen in his shorts, singing “I’m putting on my top hat.”

When I tell him about David, he frowns. “I have always found the idea of buggery physically repulsive.”

I stare at him. Whatever he says, it makes no difference. David is still dying.

***

I first heard about AIDS in 1980. The Paris Match magazine that my parents took ran a piece featuring a skeletal young man in a hospital bed holding his partner’s hand. Recently, there has been a public health campaign film on TV, in which the letters AIDS are carved on a black tombstone. When Princess Diana visited the newly opened Broderip Ward a few months ago, she caused a scandal by chatting to patients and holding their hands without wearing gloves.

I am no Princess Diana. I am scared of going to that hospital. I don’t want to see a disfigured David.

***

After Portugal, David gave me lessons in his flat in Archway. I’d never seen a grown-up living so provisionally. Lessons were in the front room, where there was a square table with two chairs, an armchair, and a music stand. Framed pictures were propped up against the walls at floor level.

I turned up one day with a Bach sonata that I’d heard David perform in a concert. My version limped. I couldn’t get it to flow.

“Play it with all the time and space in the world,” David said.

Somehow, with him willing me on, I felt the stillness descend.

***

I’d planned to go back to Portugal the next summer, but I bit through my lower lip in a bike crash, which meant no oboe for several months. David sent me a card with a sixteenth-century painting of a girl at a virginal, below the motto Post tenebras spero lucem, “after the shadows, I hope for the light.” In his loopy, forward-sloping hand, he had written, Dear Abbey, I just wanted to wish you “get well soon” and I’ll look forward to seeing you soon. Best regards, David R. So much of his handwriting all at once. I stuck it into the frame of my mirror.

The next day, a package arrived with the same handwriting, containing a pottery plaque of a stylised oboist, leaning forwards on a chair with his head bent, a posture no student of David’s would ever get away with.

Instead of Portugal, I spent the summer in Oxford, staying with George and Pat. Like Harriet in Gaudy Night, I worked in Duke Humfrey’s Library, flanked by ancient vellum and calfskin. I read John Donne, in honour of Lord Peter Wimsey, and dreamed of a scholarly life. My parents would be proud to add books of mine to the half-shelf of my father’s monographs. One afternoon, in an article about Alexander the Great invading northern India, I read about Greek influences on Buddhist art. How about that for a research topic? I saw myself learning Urdu and climbing sun-baked hillsides in search of statues.

***

Rowena said David had joined a local Buddhist community. Once my lip had healed, I saw that he’d had his hair clipped short, and installed a shrine in his living-room: a candle, a brass bowl, a lacquer vase holding a twig with fleshy green leaves.

***

In January 1987, I went to my lesson with the remains of a cold. David had had one, too. He sat on the floor with his back to the radiator and coughed so that his whole chest vibrated.

I offered a crumpled packet. ‘Would you like a Fisherman’s Friend?’

“No thank you.” He pulled a face. “The stuff I have to take is much stronger than that.”

***

I travelled cheerfully down for my February lesson, reading John Donne. But things went badly. David wasn’t well. His hair was damp with sweat.

He frowned from the armchair. “What reed is that?”

“One you made.”

I made it?”

I saw the steam building.

David gripped the chair arm. “You are not making a sensible use of your talents, Abi.”

I clutched my oboe, cheeks blazing, not a multifaceted undergraduate but a naked worm.

That night, I wrote in my diary: David had a temperature and would obviously rather have been in bed. So it’s probably just as well my next lesson isn’t till mid-March.

***

I cancelled my mid-March lesson via David’s answerphone. On the twenty-first, I went to hear him in the Sheldonian. The sparkling Albinoni concerto he played pulled me unexpectedly into euphoria. I tried to tell David this in the green room. But then I had to say that I wanted to pause my lessons in the summer term. Just temporarily. I needed to concentrate on academic work. David said he understood.

***

Spring turned into a sultry summer. Someone told me I was “very quiet these days.”

A few days before I got Rowena’s letter, I had told my diary that Andrew reminded me of Edward in Sense and Sensibility, who was so foolishly shy that he often seemed negligent, although he was “only kept back by his natural awkwardness.”

***

1.6.1987

I talk over Rowena’s letter with my mother. She advises me not to visit David.

“He’ll know you’re thinking about him. That’s the main thing.”

How long will David be around to know anything? I send him a print of Chinese musicians playing long-necked stringed instruments, from the Oriental Art shop on the High. I spend most of the next few days practising the Richard Strauss concerto. It’s too hot to play with the window shut. Someone who is sitting Finals complains.

***

A friend comes to see me. She perches on the chair beside the music centre, and I sit speechless on my bed.

Suddenly, she jerks forward. “I don’t know what’s going on behind your eyes. It’s Eights Week. I’m going to go and have fun.

***

Andrew doesn’t visit. He doesn’t ring up or send a card. I am cured of Andrew, and I’m not even sad about it.

4.6.1987

I get through to Tess on the phone. Now that I hear her throaty voice, I don’t know what to say. She asks if I’m all right.

“I’ve been playing the oboe a lot.”

“Good.”

Someone has torn the corner off the Ubu Roi poster.

“People don’t… it’s hard to talk to people about David. I… I can’t imagine him. I’ve seen photos…”

“David is still the same person,” Tess says. “He needs to feel people love him.”

“I’ve sent him a picture.”

“That’s lovely. Why don’t you go down and see him?”

Where the handset cord wrapping is broken, a piece is sticking up. I twist it, picturing David, riddled with disease in a plague ward.

“He’d love to see you.”

The fragment snaps, cutting my finger, and blood wells up. I staunch it on my jeans. “Rowena says everyone is bickering in the waiting-room.”

“They make no difference to David. He’s the important person. You ring the hospital, make an appointment, then call me back and tell me you’ve done it.”

***

The Middlesex is a real place, a Victorian hospital, with untrimmed lime trees outside, whose blossom scents the air and catches in my sandals. My heart races. Inside, everything is glowing wood and duck-egg paint. Amazingly, I meet Dick and Lorraine in the anteroom of the Ward. Dick introduces me to a thick-set, silent man and a petite, tight-lipped woman. David’s parents. His mother has David’s brown eyes.

Lorraine gets up and looks at Dick. “We have to go.”

As they leave, Mrs. Reichenberg frowns. “David’s been with his healer, and then he had to be put on a drip.”

I take her hand. “His faith must be helping him.”

She looks puzzled.

“I’m Christian, but I’m sure it’s the same God.”

She presses my hand. “I’m glad he has Christian friends.”

A kohl-eyed man appears, wearing a purple salwar kameez. “David would like to see you, Abi.”

His legs look like they’re made of rubber. What sort of healing does he do? He shows me to a door opening onto a small room with a high window in the corner. A bony, bearded man is propped up in bed, covered with a crumpled sheet. When I see his eyes, big and brown without glasses, I realise it is David.

“Hello Abi.”

“Hello, how are you feeling?” I sit down on the chair beside his bed. He looks restless and feverish. I’m surprised I don’t feel tearful.

“Thank you for the cards and the picture. They’re lovely.” His voice is soft and very still. There’s a dark patch on the skin of his right upper arm, and his left wrist is striped with bandages.

“Abi, would you do something for me? Would you draw the curtains and open the window?”

I let the breeze in, and it lifts David’s hair. “Is that too much?”

“Not at the moment.” His smile is the same. “I’m afraid you’ll have to do most of the talking.”

Something in my face seems to be softening, as if my eyes were letting more of the world in. “I’m glad you like the picture.”

The print of Chinese musicians is propped up against the far wall.

“You’ll have to speak up. I’m going deaf.”

We both laugh. David looks down at the sheet over his chest. I can’t think of anything else to say.

“It’s lovely to see you.”

I get up and look down at his arm on the bed. Then I take his hand and he squeezes it for several seconds with what seems like every ounce of his old strength.

“Goodbye.”

“Bye bye, Abi.”

I look back into the room, and his head is bowed. I feel drunk and breathless. I can still feel the pressure of his hand.

***

6.6.1987

I arrange to visit David again and this time, no one else is there. The curtains are open, the room is airy, and dust motes dance in the sunlight.

“How are you feeling?”

“A bit tired. I’m wired up to this thing.” David grimaces at the drip attached to his left arm.

“Is it painful?”

“Not really.”

“I’ve brought you a present.”

“Another one?”

I unwrap the string of Indian cotton birds I’ve brought. “You hang them up and the bell clonks when the wind blows. Shall I leave the bell on?”

“Yeah.”

I tie the birds to the TV set above my head and sit down beside the bed. “Oxford is full of people in black, sitting Finals. I’m so glad I have another year.”

David raises an eyebrow. “Then what? A job in the City?”

“No.” I swallow. “Could I make it as a baroque oboist, if I practise hard?”

“You couldn’t make a living from it, but you could get work.”

It’s a kick in the stomach. There’s my challenge.

David pulls a face and looks up at his drip. “They’re treating my salmonella at the moment.” He rings the bell for a nurse. “It’s not moving, is it?”

She inspects the sack of fluid above the tube. “Your veins must be getting angry. We’ll have to try it again, somewhere more central.”

“What does ‘more central’ mean?”

The nurse gives a wry smile and goes out.

“I need to go to the loo, Abi. You’d better wait outside.”

“Should I go altogether?”

“Perhaps better, because of the tiredness factor.”

“I’ll come again. See you soon.”

David smiles. “Bye, Abi.”

***

10.6.1987

I call the Middlesex to arrange another visit, but I’m too late. David died this morning.

For John Donne, death is a holy room “where with thy choir of saints for ever more, I shall be made thy music.”

***

In August, I am operated on for a breast lump. I don’t mention it at my lesson with Dick, my new teacher, although I am plastered with dressings. I practise and make reeds for hours every evening. The following year, a month before Finals, I am hired for my first recording on baroque oboe, as fourth oboe in Messiah.

A recording of David’s comes out: a collection of baroque favourites on which he plays the sinfonia to Bach’s cantata I stand with one foot in the grave, a slow movement with a heart-beat bass, like the vintage Hamlet cigar advertisements.

The sessions had been in May 1987.

“The producer wasn’t sure if they had enough takes,” Dick says. “Everyone realised something was wrong, but no one knew what.”

When I first hear it, my stomach cramps. The oboe is quiet and still. At the end, it twists away from the home key to prepare the next movement, and the long last note hovers, ready for a new journey, before the silence begins.

Author’s Note: The link several paragraphs above leads to the sinfonia to JS Bach’s cantata I stand with one foot in the grave, BWV 156. It is the last solo recording David Reichenberg made, one month before his death.

Meet the Contributor

AV-BruceAV Bruce is a London-based writer and musician. After reading classics at Oxford University, she worked as a freelance oboist for 20 years, living in The Hague, Dresden, and Budapest. Her stories and essays have received an honourable mention in the inaugural Curae Prize, won 4th Prize in the HWA Short Story Competition, been shortlisted for the Exeter Story Prize and the HG Wells Competition, and published by Godage International Publishers and the St. Ursin Press. She is working on her first novel, set in Dresden just after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Image Source: Andrea Mion’s “Meditazione” / Flickr Creative Commons

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