By Jonathan Taylor
For Rowland Cotterill
They spun webs around me like spiders…. But I am to blame too. Why did I let it happen? My life has all been paper!
– Gustav Mahler
I visited the elderly gentleman who called himself Dr. Gustav Mahler, of 22, Woodside Grove, Hanford, Stoke-on-Trent, only twice.
The first time, in June 1999, I was sent by the Potteries Phonographic Society (P.O.P.S. for short). “We’re told on the gramophone grapevine he has a remarkable collection,” said the Chairman of the Society. “We’ve been trying to gain access to it for years, but he won’t talk to any of us on the committee. He thinks we think he’s mad.” The Chairman shrugged his shoulders. “And I think what he thinks we think is probably spot on. But he doesn’t know you, might trust you, as a new member of the Society.”
I frowned, wondering why the Chairman and the committee were so fixated on gaining access to this man’s collection. The Chairman noticed my frown, and opened his hands: “Look, I’ll be honest with you. We’re driven by intellectual curiosity here, of course, but also, shall we say, by more pragmatic motivations: we understand that Dr. Mahler – as he calls himself – has no known relatives, or close friends. So, when he dies, as he must inevitably do at some point in the future, especially if, as he claims, he really is 139 years old” – here, the Chairman snorted a fake laugh, among half a dozen other sub-clauses – “well, at that point, the collection will have to go somewhere. And we don’t want that somewhere to be the wrong hands, or, God forbid, the tip – if, that is, the collection turns out to be worth saving. So we need to ascertain what he has squirreled away up there, in Hanford. As our newest (and very eminent) member, we thought you might like to take on this perfectly benign reconnaissance mission.”
It made total sense, of course, that it was I whom the Chairman asked to take on this “mission.” Over the years, I’d built up quite a national, maybe even international reputation – if I do say so myself – for my record and music book shop, Scores & Shellac (you might have heard of it). The shop had been mentioned as a “musical treasure trove” in The Guardian, even The New Yorker; and everyone in the business knew me as the dealer who could find anything. Everyone knew that, if they wanted a particular classical record, musical biography, score, however obscure or forgotten, I was the person to approach. In my time, I’d arranged for suppressed Soviet Melodiya LPs to be smuggled through the Iron Curtain; I’d traced lost scores by a Norwegian composer whose house had burned down, incinerating most of his life’s work; I’d recovered a hitherto-unknown film of the Theresienstadt ghetto orchestra playing Entartete music, S.S. officers standing by, grinning, applauding.There was nothing – I thought, my customers thought – that I couldn’t trace. If it existed, I would find it, even if it took years, even if the customer didn’t want it any longer. And I did it all, or almost all, from my desk in the shop, telephoning, letter-writing, searching through catalogues and archives.
In the end, perhaps, I got a little bored. The internet started to make things easier – too easy, too accessible – and my customers seemed to lose interest too. The shop started losing money, filling up with books, scores, records which they’d requested, but never bothered to collect. No-one seemed as excited about rare records any more. Everything seemed so damned available.
Then my mother died, and I inherited her house. I sold the shop and most of the stock, put the rest in storage, and moved back to Stoke – nearly thirty years after moving away. I’d intended to carry on the business through mail order, even (God help me) experimenting with internet selling; but had hardly done anything on either score when, a few weeks in, I was buttonholed by the Chairman of P.O.P.S. about Dr. Mahler. I can’t lie: I was excited, curious. He’d given me something new to do.
Before seeing Dr. Mahler in person, I decided to try and find out as much about him as possible. Thankfully, I had a gossipy friend in the next street but one, Sylvie Shelley, of Spark Close, Hanford. I’d known her since school. We’d kept in touch – or, at least, she’d kept in touch with me – even during the three decades I’d been away from Stoke, too busy to think much of anyone back home. Unlike other people roundabouts, Sylvie had never once lectured me about neglecting her or my mother; and all through the funeral and upheaval of moving, she’d helped in small ways – sorting out the garden, recommending plumbers. Everyone seemed to know her, everyone seemed to trust her.
So I trusted her too, and knew I could ask her anything. I called her up, and she seemed happy to hear from me, and told me all she knew.
Dr. Gustav Mahler, she said, lived alone. He’d moved to Hanford from somewhere down South three years before, following a family bereavement or divorce or nervous breakdown. He spoke with a comic German accent – or so Sylvie claimed – “like something off Fawlty Towers.” He was perfectly harmless, but most definitely mad, thought my friend. “I get on with him, whenever I see him in the grocer’s, or on Neighbourhood Watch business. Apart from being a lunatic, he’s a very nice old gentleman.”
I asked about his name. Sylvie said his name really was Gustav Mahler: she’d heard from a friend, who’d heard from someone at the council, that he’d changed it from Dr. Egon Young via Deed Poll, a few years previously.
“So, in a sense, he really is Gustav Mahler,” I said. “Just not the famous one who wrote ten symphonies. A North Staffs Mahler.”
“You see, that’s what happens to people,” she said to me, “whenever they come across him.”
“They get sucked in. They start believing him, bit by bit. First his name, then other stuff. I’ve felt it myself.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, it’s like he’s so convinced himself, he kind of convinces others round him too.”
“You don’t mean people actually believe he’s a dead composer?”
“No – not quite. Not really. Not if you ask them outright. Then, of course, everyone knows it’s nonsense. What I mean is that people always start by saying ‘Y’what?’ or ‘What’s he on about?’ or ‘Who?’ when he goes on about symphonies and conducting. A lot of people round here haven’t heard of Mahler, and when they realise this guy thinks he’s some famous dead musician, they’re disappointed it’s not Elvis. That’s how it is at first: bewilderment and disappointment. But then, over time, their attitudes change – I’ve seen it myself. The same people who said ‘Y’what?’ start nodding, smiling at him, as if he’s talking sense. And they’re not just putting it on. It’s like you have to go along with it, like you get sucked into his delusions. He kind of draws you in, like gravity or something.”
“He sounds fascinating,” I said. “I would very much like to experience this gravitational pull of his. Will you come with me when I visit him? I know you’re busy, looking after your sister and all, but it might help me. You can chat to him about Neighbourhood Watch–y things, locks and alarms and so on, while I root through his collection. In fact, rather than any awkwardness about the Society, we could both pretend to … I mean, we could both beNeighbourhood Watch people for the day, as it were.” There was a silence on the line. “If, of course, you didn’t mind.”
“I don’t think I’m meant to be a party to spying, as Neighbourhood Watch co-ordinator,” she said.
“I thought that was the whole point of it,” I said.
She couldn’t really argue with that, so she laughed half-heartedly, and then sighed: “Okay, then, just this once. You know I’d do anything for you.”
This time I laughed; but I don’t think she heard, because she’d already put down the receiver.
Next morning, I stood with her as she knocked at the door of 22, Woodside Grove. A shrivelled man, with thick round glasses and static hair answered. “Can I help you?” he asked. I did my best not to laugh at his German accent, which really did sound like a ’70s British sitcom, or bad war movie.
“Hello, Dr. Mahler,” said Sylvie, holding out her Neighbourhood Watch identity card. “I think you know me. I’ve been asked by the local police force to visit people and ask about their household security.” She pulled out a clipboard from under her arm: “A quick survey.” Dr. Mahler didn’t say anything, just squirmed, wriggled, twitched on the spot, seemingly unable to keep still. His eyes kept darting between us, as if he was seeing something we could not.
Sylvie peered round him, into the house: “So if you’re free,” she asked, “would you mind if we came in for a quick chat?”
Muttering something incomprehensible, Dr. Mahler moved to one side, and gestured for us to enter.
The door opened directly into the front room. It was a dingy skip of abandoned meals, unwashed vests, books, scores, and dusty heaps of records and phonograph cylinders – a musical compost heap. Any furniture had long since been buried alive. Dotted here and there among the ruins were classic gramophone players: the Columbia Eclipse, Columbia BF Peerless, HMV 28, HMV 31b, Victor 2 Hunchback, Edison Bell Elf, Columbia Eclipse, Baby Monarch. I stepped into the room, and their cones surrounded me, like so many iron vortexes, a scrapheap of black holes. I thought I might get sucked in.
“What a collection,” I said, before I could stop myself.
“You like, no?” said Dr. Mahler.
“I like,” I said, hoping he didn’t suspect anything.
I needn’t have worried, because his attention was distracted by Sylvie, who’d tripped over a couple of books. He gallantly rushed over to her, and guided her through the mess by the arm: “I am sorry for the mess,” he said, “but my life, it has all been paper.”
I’d heard that expression somewhere before, I thought.
“Shall we go into the kitchen?” asked Sylvie, trying to extract her arm. Having done so, she brandished the clipboard: “Perhaps there we can sit down, and go through these questions about your household security.”
He nodded, and she followed him through a trail in the debris to a door on the left. Dr. Mahler didn’t seem to notice I wasn’t following – seemed to have forgotten me. Before Sylvie disappeared into the kitchen after him, she turned and held up five fingers: I had five minutes.
I took out my notebook and pencil, and began noting down the makes and serial numbers of all the gramophone players.
Next, I had a quick glance at the books. Most of them seemed to be unreturned library books, from all over the country, on musical subjects: orchestration, fugue, Wagner’s theories on drama, lives of Beethoven, a first edition of Alma Mahler’s biography of Gustav Mahler. I flicked through this last book. Every single line on every single page had been meticulously crossed out in red biro, rendering it worthless.
I picked up a few of the thousands of pages of manuscript paper that carpeted everything. As far as I could tell, it was all nonsense. Thousands and thousands of pages, maybe years of work – and it was all dodecaphonic gobbledegook. I let the papers fall back to where they wanted to lie, while black dots and squiggles swam in front of my eyes.
Finally, with (I reckoned) a couple of minutes to spare, I started to dig into the heaps of phonograph cylinders and records. I scooped up handfuls of them. A few were LPs and CDs, but the majority were ancient 78s in brown paper sleeves. There were all the usual suspects: Caruso singing I Pagliacci; Melba singing La Traviata; Mengelberg conducting Wagner’s Tannhäuser Prelude; Toscanini conducting Beethoven’s Seventh.
There were rarer artefacts, including a 1929 set of Bach’s Double Violin Concerto. The unnamed orchestra – I found out later – probably consisted of members of the Vienna Philharmonic; the two soloists were the famous virtuoso and long-time leader of the Philharmonic, Arnold Rosé, and his daughter, Alma Rosé; the orchestra was conducted by her brother. I slid out one of the records from its sleeve, and out fell a crumpled copy of an old photo. The photo, I again found out later, must have been from around 1907, and featured eight greying figures: Gustav Mahler, with his wife, his two daughters, his sister, his brother-in-law Arnold Rosé, his nephew, and his tiny niece Alma Rosé. It was a mausoleum – the future seemed to cast its shadow backwards onto those pictured: shortly after the photo was taken, Mahler’s elder daughter, whose nickname was ‘Putzi,’ died of scarlet fever, and he himself was diagnosed with fatal heart disease; his niece Alma would end up in Auschwitz-Birkenau, leading the women’s orchestra, and dying there in mysterious circumstances; Arnold Rosé, her father, died shortly after the war, his heart broken by loss. All of them were dead – well, except perhaps Mahler himself, who, it seemed, was stuck in some kind of bungalow-limbo in Stoke-on-Trent.
As I was peering at the photo, looking for echoes, or pre-echoes, of the Stoke Mahler’s features on faces of composer and family, one of the discs I was holding under my arm slid out of its sleeve, and rolled on its edge along the floor. It looped round one of the gramophone players, and finally clattered to a standstill in a corner. I stepped over to it, and picked it up. Assuming it was part of the same Bach Concerto set, I was about to slip it back into its sleeve, when I felt its different weight, its thicker shellac texture. I glanced down at it, and saw its label, white and gold lettering, with a logo of two gold quavers: ‘Columbia Phonograph Company, Pat: Specimen: Test Pressing: Not For Sale: 80 rpm.’ This label was half-obscured by a white sticker on top, like the kind on homemade jam jars. On the sticker were scribbled words: ‘Adagietto, New York Philharmonic, 1910.’ Underneath was a signature: ‘Gustav Mahler,’ and a handwritten dedication: ‘für meine Almschi.’
Clearly, this was ludicrous nonsense, as fake as its owner’s delusions. Nonetheless, I was intrigued, distracted – so was still staring at it, weighing it up, when I felt breath on my neck: “Why don’t you try it?” whispered Dr. Mahler, who’d crept up behind me. “Go on, try it.”
He didn’t seem remotely surprised or annoyed to find me there, holding a dozen of his records; instead, he guided me by the elbow to one of the Columbia gramophones, and prised the record out of my hands. Then he slipped it onto the turntable. He wound up the handle, and the clockwork motor whirred into action, the blackness starting to spin. The turntable rotated at 78 rpm, rather than the 80 stated on the record sleeve, but 2 rpm either way wouldn’t make much difference. Dr. Mahler turned the volume dial up, and placed the needle onto the shellac.
I watched the needle riding the grooves, surfing the warps, the record spinning round and round, drawing me into its crackles – until I felt as if I were orbiting it, rather than watching it rotate. Dr. Mahler and now Sylvie – holding her clipboard – stood next to me, similarly mesmerised.
At first, all I could hear was a darkness of crackles, hiss, fuzz, as thick as a forest. Then, from far away, from a deeper darkness, loomed fragmentary sounds of a string orchestra.
The three of us waited and listened.
The orchestra seemed to be murmuring the opening of the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony – an orchestral love-song, scored for strings and harp, dedicated to the composer’s wife, Alma. The acoustic was dry, the orchestra out of tune, the tempo too quick, almost cursory, the beat too strict, and the phrases merged with the crackles and warps. It was a primitive, acoustical recording, presumably made by a few members of the New York Philharmonic string section crowded round a recording horn, playing Stroh violins – that is, violins amplified with a metal horn. The sound waves from the Stroh violins were sucked down another horn, and, through tiny changes in air pressure, vibrated a stylus which etched grooves onto the surface of the disc. The resulting sound was all shrill-treble: harp, ’cellos and double basses were all but inaudible; and I wondered if the piece had been specially rearranged for Stroh violins and violas alone, an orchestra of castrati.
But from this orchestra of castrati, from this wreckage of crackles and darkness, from this cursory baton-driven reading, from the record’s ever-decreasing circles of sound, there gradually emerged the whisper of something – something like a secret, something like a spell, something which made the room go cold, turned us to stone. For a few moments, I wondered if I were going to cry, in a way I hadn’t done for decades, not even my mother’s funeral – or if, somehow, the music were crying for me.
After four minutes, though, the side finished before my tears arrived, and before the music had ended. I wanted to hear the rest, so, without waiting for Dr. Mahler to say anything, I flipped the disc over and put the needle onto the first groove – only to hear nothing this time except crackles, hiss, darkness. I cranked the volume up, and moved the needle on a couple of times, but there was nothing there. The crackles and warps were empty, echoey, the record a deserted concert hall.
Dr. Mahler, sensing my disappointment, touched my elbow again: “We never reached the end,” he said.
“I don’t know what you mean,” I said.
“I mean, it was just a test. We did the first few minutes. We were going to record the whole movement the following year.” He frowned, puzzled by something. “But for some reason I never went back.”
“You’re telling me,” I said, almost coughing, “that that’s Mahler – okay, you– conducting his … your own music?”
He nodded. Behind him, I saw Sylvie tilt her head towards the front door. It was time to leave. “Thank you, Dr. Mahler,” said Sylvie, shaking his hand. “It was a very useful meeting.” She waved a key at him, “And thank you for this, too. Living alone, it’s important for your own safety that a neighbour – someone trustworthy– has a spare key for emergencies.” She nodded her head again towards the front door: she couldn’t, wouldn’t give me any more time.
I glanced back to the record on the turntable. What did it mean? It simply couldn’t have been Gustav Mahler conducting his own music. There are no extant recordings of Mahler as conductor. There are piano rolls made by Mahler, which have been transferred onto CD. There’s also a much-disputed, and dubious, piano recording which purports to be Mahler playing Mendelssohn’s Rondo Capriccioso in 1905. Orchestrally speaking, though, there is nothing; in 1911, he died that bit too early.
So, most probably, the record I’d been listening to was just another of Dr. Mahler delusions, and it wasn’t worth dwelling on. I let myself be led back out into the sunshine. I let the door be shut behind me, between the record and myself. I let Sylvie take me for a coffee, and a chat. “Don’t dwell on it,” she said to me, echoing – as she often did – what I was telling myself.
The problem was, though, that I couldn’t help dwelling on it: the music, the crackles, the shrillness haunted me afterwards, repeating over and again in my head – Iike the recording itself, never reaching an end-point or coda, spinning round and round at 78 rpm: quavers C, D, E to crotchet E, leaning into the tonic, dotted-crotchet F … quavers C, D, E to crotchet E, leaning into the tonic, dotted-crotchet F … quavers C, D, E to crotchet E…
Meanwhile, I reported back to the Chairman of the Potteries Phonographic Society. I told him everything I’d seen, the 78s, the cartridges, the original Alma Rosé records, the beautiful gramophone players – everything apart from the Adagietto. All the time I was talking to him, I could hear the music in my head; but I didn’t tell him about it. I couldn’t face the questions, and didn’t want him to think I was crazy too.
How could I explain it? I couldn’t put it into words: And, well, I know it’s certainly, almost certainly, not the case; I know it’s impossible, almost impossible, no, totally impossible; but still, I can’t help wondering if what I heard on that record in Dr. Mahler’s bungalow is some lost echo of Mahler conducting his own music. But no. There were no recordings ever made of Mahler conducting, test pressings or otherwise. It’s not possible. And if any of it by any impossible chance were possible, well, of course, we know that Dr. Mahler, or whoever he is, would be sitting on a fortune.
The one person I did tell about my unending mental Adagietto was Sylvie. “I thought you looked distracted,” she said, “or more distracted than normal, anyway. And you look like you’re muttering something under your breath all the time.”
“I can’t help it,” I said, trying to make light of it. “The melody won’t go away. To be honest, I’m a bit desperate. I can’t concentrate on anything.”
“Well, look,” she said, “I’ve got an idea.”
That was the thing about Sylvie: she always had an idea, always had an answer to every problem. She was so practical, pragmatic – the opposite, in many ways, of me.
Her idea this time was to talk to her sister’s consultant, a neurologist called Prof. Christopher Sollertinsky, at their next appointment. These days, Sylvie was more or less a full-time carer for her sister, so she generally visited the neurologist with her. They’d almost become friends: Sylvie, being Sylvie, baked Prof. Sollertinsky rock cakes, gave him advice on security when his car was broken into, knitted him a scarf for the winter.
“I can ask him something in return for the scarf,” she said to me. “He won’t mind.”
And remarkably, he didn’t. Sylvie had that way with her: she could charm mad old composers, overworked consultants, anyone. I could never understand it, never see it myself – whatever ‘it’ was – and seemed to be the only person who was immune to it.
“He’s going to call you later,” she said.
“You could charm anyone,” I said.
“I wish that were true,” she said, and hung up.
I have no idea why, but the moment she hung up, a memory I hadn’t revisited in decades suddenly came back to me: we were in the last year of high school. It was lunchtime, and we were both in the music room – me practising something on the piano for the Christmas concert, her pretending to practise her clarinet. Quite why she bothered was beyond me: she was never any good, just seemed to want an excuse to hang around. It can’t have been for the company: I’d hardly speak to her, because I was concentrating hard on the concert piece, rehearsing it, dissecting it, playing individual bars or phrases over and over. Now and then, others would burst in, having escaped from the playground, evaded the prefects.
One afternoon, I remember there were three other boys in the room, knocking over music stands, throwing records everywhere. I was saying, “Please stop” – as much to a strange garish halo that had appeared round them, the piano, the score, as to them. I remember the halo more than their faces – that day was the first time I saw it.
The boys stalked over to me at the piano. “Pleasestoppleasestoppleasestop,” they mimicked me, and slammed the fallboard down, onto my fingers. I can still hear the way the piano’s strings groaned in pain. They were about to do it for a second time: two of the boys were holding my hands down on the keyboard, and the other boy was getting ready to slam the fallboard onto them. “That’ll teach you, spaz,” they said. “Now you won’t bore us shitless at the concert, smug git.” I closed my eyes – to shut them out, to shut out the weird halo shimmering round them.
Then, from the corner of the room, I heard Sylvie mutter something. I didn’t understand what she’d said at first. The boys’ attention was distracted for a moment: “Y’what?” they asked. She spoke slightly louder this time, but with a wobble in her speech, not unlike her clarinet-playing: “Please don’t hurt him.”
“What’s it to you?” they asked. “Are you his tart? His slag?”
“No,” she said, “but please don’t hurt his fingers. If you stop, I’ll do … something for you in return.”
I felt the boys’ grip on my wrists loosen.
“What’s that?” they asked Sylvie. “What’re going to do for us?”
“You can …” She hesitated – and I remember opening my eyes, peering round the piano, seeing this stumpy young girl lick her lips, trying to copy seductresses she’d seen on T.V. “You can … you’ll find out after P.E. At the bottom of the field. I’ll show you then.”
Why on earth would she do that (whatever ‘that’ was) for them?I remember wondering at the time. But I don’t remember anything else. Shortly after they filed out of the room, I fell off the piano stool, suffering my first seizure. I think Sylvie ran to fetch a teacher, and eventually an ambulance.
Later, when I returned to school, I don’t recall ever thanking her for interrupting the bullying, or for helping me during the fit. I don’t remember asking her what happened, if anything, at the bottom of the field. I don’t even remember the concert, in which I was able to play because of her intervention. As far as I’m aware, we never talked about any of it – never mentioned the incident again – and I’ve no idea why it all came back to me now, thirty-five years later.
And what was most peculiar about the upsurge of memory was that the piece I saw, heard myself practising on the piano in the school music room – the piece I was rehearsing, dissecting for the concert, before the boys burst into the room – was an arrangement of Mahler’s Adagietto. In my mind’s eye, my mind’s ear, I could see the music on the stand, hear it clearly from thirty-five years before. It certainly wasn’t that piece at the time – I can’t for the life of me remember what it really was, probably a Chopin Étudeor Beethoven Bagatelle– but somehow the Adagietto had wormed its way backward, retrospectively infiltrating my memory, like some kind of time-travelling parasite. It was as if it had always been there. I wondered if it was going to start colonising all my memories, an all-encompassing idée fixe in hindsight. I couldn’t understand what was happening to me, and prayed that Sylvie’s neurologist might be able to shed some light on the problem.
Prof. Christopher Sollertsinky phoned me up that same evening, out of hours. We talked about the problem for a while, and he told me I was suffering from what’s called an “earworm, or Ohrwurmin German” – a “catchy tune, or musical meme which won’t go away, and which you experience as real, over and over. You are suffering, my friend, from repetunitis. You have heard something so profoundly disturbing or striking or suchlike that it has rerouted your neurological circuits, causing a loop – maybe even a minor seizure in the temporal lobe. You might say, the musical worm has burrowed into your head. How does the earworm make you feel?”
“I mean, emotionally speaking – what emotions do you associate with it?”
“I don’t know – sort of like there’s something I need to remember, something I’m missing, or have missed. Something I can’t quite reach, that’s hidden in those crackly sounds, like a code, or cryptic clue in a crossword. I don’t quite know how to put it, Professor: there’s some feeling in them I can’t put into words.”
“Where do you think the answer to the crossword, as it were, might be?”
“Maybe it’s at the end of the music. If only I could reach the end, then I might understand; but the end was missing, Professor. And the more the notes and phrases repeat in my head, the more they seem to drain of meaning and emotion. The shorter they become too, so now all I’m hearing are the first few notes: quavers C, D, E to crotchet E, leaning into the tonic, dotted-crotchet F. Does all that make sense?”
“It makes some kind of sense, yes,” said the Professor. There was silence for a few seconds – well, silence for him. I could still hear the Adagietto, as if on another line.
“Look,” he said, finally, “I think the first thing you should try is the psychological route, E.R.P. or even C.B.T., or something like that. Your G.P. will be able to advise you about these treatments. In your peculiar case, I think the solution might lie within yourself: you might, deep down, hold the key yourself. I would recommend spending time making lists of what the music might represent – thinking hard about what it is you have forgotten or lost. Spend time with yourself. It might be something right under your nose. And yes, maybe you should also try and trace the recording in question. You have a very eccentric earworm, in that the crackles, the specific quality of the recording, seem to be a fundamental part of it. A fascinating and unique case, in my extensive experience. Perhaps you have spent too long with records, not enough time with human beings.” He laughed, but it didn’t seem to be a joke. “Of course, if the problem persists, tell Sylvie” – I noticed he called her by her first name – “to tell me. There are possible pharmacological treatments, such as Clomipramine, for example. But let’s not go down that road unless we have to. Let’s try other things first.”
Over the next few weeks, I tried the other things – well, at least I tried to trace the recording which had caused it all. I listened to Mengelberg’s recording of the Adagietto from 1926, and Bruno Walter’s complete recording of the symphony from 1938; but neither of these was ancient enough, neither had the crackles in the right places, neither could kill off my earworm.
I hunted down every recording ever made of the symphony, new and old. I trawled through catalogues, rang round old contacts, wrote to archivists, recording studios, retired producers. Up till now, I’d been able to find anything– if it existed, people said, The New Yorker said, the owner of Scores & Shellaccould find it. But this time I failed. No-one could help me, and not one of the dozens of recordings I traced came close. None had the castrati strings, let alone the wobbles, the hisses and squeaks, which now – in my mind – had infected the music, like a virus. I’d stopped hearing the beauty, the emotion, the melodic line – they’d all drained out of it – and now I just heard noise – the notes and the crackles merged into a meaningless loop, round and round, round and round – like a worm swallowing its own tail, never stopping, on and on – my whole mind a viral Adagietto – quavers C, D, E to crotchet E, leaning into tonic F, dotted crotchet– never stopping, round and round, never stopping, never stopping, never stopping, never …
In the end, I decided I had no choice. To be cured, I had to go back to Dr. Mahler, in order find out more about the recording, and hopefully get hold of it again.
But there was no answer when I knocked on his door, and the windows were all ply-wooded up, the garden overgrown – or doubly overgrown, given that it had already been overgrown in the first place.
I called round for Sylvie. She said no-one knew where he’d gone, or even when he’d gone. The last time anyone had seen him, he’d been sitting on his front lawn, crying to himself. Someone had asked what was wrong, and he’d just looked up and said, “It’s my Putzi. She’s gone. My Almschi. Beethoven. Mozart. They’re all gone. I’ve been waiting all this time.”
“He’s been gone for weeks,” said Sylvie, over a bitter instant coffee. “I don’t know who boarded up the windows. I did take the key and looked inside, just to check he hadn’t fallen. But no, no sign at all. It’s a mystery. He’s a mystery.”
“But what about my mystery?” I asked. “Where does that leave me? Even your Professor friend thinks I need to find the record again.”
“Is that allhe said?” Sylvie asked. “Do you really think it’ll help?”
“Yes – well, maybe. I don’t know. He’s your friend. Your sister’s doctor.”
Sylvie nodded, and swirled her coffee round in the mug, staring at it, as though hypnotised: round and round, like an earworm, or a 78.
“Will you stop doing that?” I snapped. Perhaps I shouldn’t have, but everything was irritating me.
She looked up at me. For a second, I thought she was going to cry, and I was a bit taken aback, to be honest. It seemed such an over-reaction, not to mention uncharacteristic. Still, I felt I should apologise. “I’m sorry,” I said. “You’ve been very helpful, Sylvie. A good friend. This incessant tune, though – it’s driving me mad. Put yourself in my shoes – it’s like something’s nagging you all the time. Like that feeling you get when you go on a long journey, but know you’ve left something behind.”
“I’ve never been on a really long trip,” said Sylvie, glancing towards the sitting room, from where I could hear her sister moaning (“Help! Help! Sylvie!”).
“Oh, I’m sure you have,” I said. “Anyway, the point is I’ve got to find the recording. It’s the only answer. The only cure I can think of.”
“I wonder,” said Sylvie, going back to swirling her coffee. She wasn’t much help to me or her sister, that morning.
It wasn’t till a couple of days later that I realised what she might do for me.
That morning, the earworm was louder, faster than before: 80, instead of 78 rpm. I was on a packed bus to Hanley, the city centre, and could hear it above the roar of the engine, the swearing of kids on the back seat, the crying of babies.
Then, out of nowhere, I felt breathing on the back of my neck, and heard someone sitting behind me, someone outside my head, whisper-murmur-grunt the same tune that was inside it: quavers C, D, E to crotchet E, leaning into tonic F, dotted crotchet. Someone behind me was echoing my earworm. I froze, chilled into a kind of musical paralysis.
Finally, the bus stopped, the paralysis passed, and I looked around. Whoever had been whispering to me had got off, washed away with the Hanley shopping crowds.
I followed, and wandered round the shops for hours, as if I were stuck in Death in Venice– or, rather, Death in Hanley – and I were Gustav von Aschenbach, desperately trying to find someone – someone who was always just round the next corner, down the next street. At the time, I assumed that someone was Dr. Mahler. Now – well, now I’m not so sure.
Finally, exhausted, footsore, I gave up, and caught the bus back to Hanford. It was early evening by the time I got there.
I knocked on Sylvie’s door. She answered, and seemed surprised: “Oh, it’s you. Gosh, come in. You look terrible.”
“Thanks,” I said. We sat together at the kitchen table.
“Sylvie,” I said, “I’ve come to a decision.”
She frowned at me from under her eyebrows. For the second time, I thought there were tears wobbling in her eyes. I had no idea why. “What?” she asked, very quietly.
“I need to ask you,” I said, stammering a little, “I need to ask you – if you don’t mind, well, you probably will, but I need to ask you anyway – for the key to Dr. Mahler’s house.”
Sylvie breathed out slowly. “Oh I see,” she said.
“I need that spare key,” I explained, “so I can find the record, of course.”
Sylvie didn’t argue, as I thought she would. She didn’t tell me it was illegal, that she’d get thrown off the Neighbourhood Watch committee, that it wasn’t fair to put her in this position. Instead, she got up from the table, stepped across the kitchen, and started rooting in one of the drawers.
“Here it is,” she said, holding up a key. “Take it. I need it back tonight. Don’t let anyone see you.” She handed it to me slowly, as if it were very heavy, as if it were the key to the underworld, or someone’s soul. Under normal circumstances, I’d have laughed, told her it was nothing, not to take her Neighbourhood Watch position so seriously. But something about her manner that evening stopped me. Her behaviour seemed so – I’m not quite sure how to put it – grave, definite, final.
Instead, I nodded, and was going to say thank you, but she’d already turned away – her sister was calling her from the living room: “Help! I need help, Sylvie! Sylvie!”
I let myself out, and closed the door gently behind me.
Five minutes later, I was turning the key in the front door of 22, Woodside Grove. It opened, and I stepped inside, again closing the door gently behind me.
Because of the boarded-up windows, it should have been pitch black inside. But somehow the dark mountains of rubbish round me seemed to glow, as if they had halos of their own. I pretended the halos weren’t there – ignored their warnings – and fumbled for a light switch on either side of the door. I knocked a few things over, and tripped over something with a crash, before I found one. I hoped no-one would see the light outside.
I’d knocked over a Columbia Eclipse. It was on its side, and the tonearm was bent where I’d stepped on it. Normally, I’d be furious at myself for the vandalism – and no doubt the Potteries Phonographic Society would have kicked me out – but this time, I had other things to think about. I stepped over the Eclipse, to the nearest mountain of 78s.
I started sorting through them, one by one. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands to get through.
At first, I sorted through the record mountain methodically, trying to arrange the 78s I’d examined behind me, in neat towers. Soon, though, the towers tottered, toppled, got mixed up. I tried to clear a bigger space, by piling up other stuff – clothes, books, scores – away from the records. But they toppled too. I stepped over to a second record mountain, started scattering records, even hurling them around.
The Adagietto whirling in my head was getting louder, faster, 82, 84, 86 rpm, Allegretto, Allegro pesante, transformed into a goose-stepping march, forte, then fortissimo. I couldn’t concentrate, the words on the record sleeves were blurring, and I wasn’t watching where I was treading. I skidded on a 78 I’d tossed over my shoulder. I fell, and a hundred records and musical scores fell on top of me. I lay there for a moment, covered by 78s, paper and dust, entombed, buried alive in symphonies, overwhelmed by the impossibility of finding a needle in a musical haystack.
I will never find my Adagietto, I cried to myself.
I thought of Mahler himself: he could never recapture it, either. He tried to, by quoting it near the end of his unfinished Tenth Symphony. But it never sounds quite right, quite convincing – as if what it represents is lost – as if it’s impossible to return to the love song he wrote years earlier for his wife, Alma – as if the death of their daughter, his disease, and her infidelity have cast a discordant shadow over it – as if the nine-note discord which dominates the first and last movements overshadows everything after and even, retrospectively, everything before it – as if the symphony’s terrifying dissonance might bleed out of the score into both past and future …
– and I could hear it now, haunting my earworm, quietly disrupting its harmonies, dismembering its musical line …
– and cutting through it all, through earworm and discord, I suddenly heard Dr. Mahler’s voice: I swear I heard it, next to my ear, out of nowhere – whispering, whimpering: “My life has all been paper.” I felt his hands on me, smelt something like petrol on his fingers. He seemed to be shaking me. “Where is my Almschi?” he was sobbing. “Tell me, please. I’ve been waiting for her to come back to me for so long. My Almschi.Für dich leben! Für dich sterben!”
I couldn’t seem to move, couldn’t say anything – I was paralysed, as I had been on the bus. All I remember thinking is: how remarkable, how strange, how terrible love must be, to make you wait for years, or even decades for someone who never turns up.
Then I heard a shrill trumpet shrieking A above everything, like an annunciation from the unconscious, and the nine-note dissonance crashed around me once more, blotting out the Adagietto, blotting out Dr. Mahler’s voice, blotting out everything but the smell of petrol.
When I came to, in the hospital, after the most severe seizure I’d had in years, everything inside me seemed so quiet. The Adagietto had finally gone and so had the discord.
At first, I felt an intense emptiness, almost as if I wanted the earworm back. Soon enough, though, the emptiness was filled by pain, by the soreness of my legs and hands, where I’d suffered burns from the fire. The fire had been put out fairly quickly, I was told: it had destroyed most of the house’s contents – including the records and antique collection of gramophone players – but the house itself remained intact, and Dr. Mahler was fine. He’d been sectioned, of course, but was otherwise unharmed.
The police came to question me, and the Chairman of the Potteries Phonographic Society sent a card. No-one else visited or sent messages. I waited in that hospital bed for what felt like years, decades, though it was really only a few days. But no. No-one else came to see me.
My life, I realised, had all been paper, shellac.