The dogs can take London, the old master thinks. The cold creeps in from gaps in the floor boards and settles in his bones. His fingers are stiff around his pen and he hates the sound of the rain, its ticking constantly jarring his concentration. His music is failing to come to life on the page, the ink preferring to sit bloated on the bars – an old man’s notes.
He heaves himself up from behind the desk and waddles like a bad-tempered pelican across the wooden floor, tugging at the heavy damask curtains to let in the grey light of dawn. He likes to work when everyone else is sleeping, in the depth of night when he is alone with the music in his head.For a moment, he thinks he is imaging the dark figure in the street two floors below, standing solitary in the rain sodden square. His grey coat blends into the pavement and his long brown hair is plastered against his neck. Neither man moves.
The stranger looks up, straight into the window where he is standing. The old man sees a flash of blue from his eyes, sunken into his pale face.
Friedrich. Gott im Himmel. His heart beats heavily in the barrel of his rounded chest. He cannot understand what the young man is doing so far from Hamburg. He sneers to himself- Friedrich, the most wretched of all the students he has taken on over the years to serve as scribes in exchange for lessons in composition. The boy had been particularly untalented, capable enough of recreating simple pieces of music by ear but unable to come to any understanding with the pen. Friedrich could hardly spell his own name. How he has made it across the channel and into London is a mystery, but he doesn’t dare ask himself why his old student has come. The old man has a sudden vision of some hellish fiend, ready to exact revenge on a poor teacher while dry flames lick around their ankles.
The door knocker resounds against the front door with a terrific brass thud. Downstairs he hears a door opening and closing, the footsteps of the serving girl on the carpet. He bursts onto the landing, shouts for her not to open the door, but he is too late – he sees Friedrich, taller than he remembers, framed by the open door. The old master is heaving from the burst of effort involved in sprinting across his own study, his stomach shaking. He looks short and ill-kempt without the wig he usually wears in public.
‘Hello, master,’ Friedrich says, smiling pleasantly. ‘I apologise for turning up without an invitation, but I figured I could rely on an old friend for an introduction in the city. May I come in?’
He practically has one foot over the threshold already. He has not been in London long. He wears his curls at shoulder length, tied back with a yellow piece of ribbon; an impossible hairstyle for those who live in the lice-infested capital year round. No hat.
The master clears his throat awkwardly. ‘I did not know you were in town,’ he says. His native German feels heavy on his tongue. A pause between them. ‘I also didn’t think you would care to see me again, Friedrich.’
‘Because of that squabble we had? It was nothing,’ Friedrich says, waving a gloved hand. The gesture is hindered by a large rectangular package under his arm. The master has no recollection of Friedrich past the point where he’d called him a talentless sod, shortly after depositing all of the boy’s belongings, including his compositions, in the pond outside the old house.
A sense of foreboding is rising in the back of his mouth. He turns his mind to the leather-bound bible he keeps beside his bed, and murmurs a prayer under his breath.
Friedrich meaningfully sets his package on the dining table and unwraps stacks of densely filled pages. ‘Is that more of your work?’ he asks with some trepidation. He knows Friedrich is dedicated to the art, but the boy is also recklessly stubborn and quick to anger. He has heard strange stories about his former pupil from friends in Germany – breaking and entering, parties and debauchery. Alcoholic fumes always on his breath. One evening he had apparently been found in a neighbour’s chicken pen, empty bottle in one hand and the headless body of a hen in the other, blood smeared all over his overcoat.
The old man’s eyes move over the lines, the scratched-in notes and words at the bottom. His mind unravels around the ink; he can hear the melody behind the writing, the harsh strings and the heavy-footed bass.
Only now has he taken notice of the lines of verse, hastily added underneath the music bars as if just an afterthought – in English. The foreignness of the language lends a strange quality to the lyrics, thick, but somehow suited to music. He is reminded of the chorus in a Greek tragedy, figures faceless and cloaked in black. Friedrich, dancing Dionysus.
He looks up from the page at Friedrich, who is leaning over the table, his thumbs drumming against the surface. He frowns. ‘Who wrote the words to this?’ He does not say that they are brilliant.
‘I did.’ His old student looks nervous. His face is so close he can see his freckles under the pearly skin. ‘I know it’s not much, sir, but it is hard when you don’t have the means to hire someone to do the work. I don’t have any connections in London. That’s why I came to you first.’ For patronage, money.
‘I need more time,’ he says. ‘I can look over these for you today. Come back tomorrow morning, and we’ll talk.’
He watches Friedrich disappear over the square from his window, humming a tune. That’s the last song he’ll ever sing, the master thinks. He turns to the pages he has scattered over his desk, painstakingly neat, and feels a flash of emotion that is not exactly guilt. Friedrich’s music hasn’t improved since he fired him, but the words take off in the master’s mind, creating the true music by themselves.
The notes come to him on dancing feet, fluidly as if they were moving through the air of his study. He draws up the strings first, melancholy in the beginning but triumphant for the chorus, where he joins Friedrich’s choir to an elegant brass section. The music fits the lyric seamlessly.
The jolly entrance of the harpsichord is interrupted by a loud croaking noise. The master sits up in his chair, irritated. It seems to be coming from the ceiling, like wood stretched almost to its breaking point. He dismisses the noise with a determined shrug. It is an old house, after all.
A wailing, like a viola man-handled by a brute’s paws. For a moment he thinks someone has broken into his own collection of instruments but the sound is far-off, like wind in the pipes; outside, the sky has blackened. It is typical English weather, hardly worthy of his attention. He jots down several bars, the notes dashed aggressively. The ink shines darkly in the light of the candles he has lit. The stairs groan as the maid walks up from the kitchen, in vain trying not to disturb the old master.
Several hours pass. Friedrich’s words lie under the new composition in his own handwriting, looping around themselves repeatedly. One of the shutters is ripped loose by the wind and bangs violently against the walls of the house. He gets up, tries to secure it from the inside but the effort is no use.
He opens up his harpsichord, trying to distract himself from the drumming of the shutter against the wall outside. It is a beautiful instrument, inlaid with ivory and swept gold. He plays the notes solitarily, imagining how it would sound against the backdrop of a full orchestra. His hands shake on the keys. He tells himself it’s the cold. Sweat forms between his bushy eyebrows as the house continues to moan under the strain of the wind.
A rapid succession of knocks against the door like gun fire, ringing up from the hallway. The harpsichord falls still under his shivering fingers. It is not dawn yet.
There is no sound from downstairs. The maid must be sleeping. The knocks again, coming faster and stopping abruptly. He takes a candle and makes his way to the window slowly. He sees Friedrich’s dark figure again, hunched in his coat. Even in the darkness he can see he is soaked through and trembling. Friedrich lifts his head to cry out to him. He has to open the window to hear, the wind an icy moan around his ears.
‘Is that my music you were playing? It sounds different,’ Friedrich says, trying to smile but his mouth is stiff with cold. God knows how long he has been outside, listening. His eyes look feverish, a slow burn.
The old man says nothing. In the distance he hears the braying of hounds, a long cry in the night. It reminds him of the solitary wolves that would sometimes stalk too closely to town limits in the German winter. Behind him the pages to his new opera lie spread over the desk and the surfaces of the harpsichord, the ink drying slowly. Tomorrow he will commission a neat copy to be made and sent out to his patrons, and drop the original words into the fire place. In the gloom he can imagine pairs of eyes from the forest.
Friedrich calls up again. ‘Please, sir, let me in.’
The master clutches his bible closely to his chest, knowing he is being silly. He drops the curtains, snuffs out the candles. There are no wolves in London, of course. Darkness falls around him and the room is silent.
He doesn’t hear of Friedrich again.
The maid finds a dead rooster in the loft, on the day the opera opens for the first time. A yellow ribbon is tied around its snapped neck.