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Bonny Sweet Robin

Rose Malone


The small music-stand and the tall music-stand—side by side at the window. A crucifixion scene, with just the one Good Thief. Julia has gone, leaving her music and her recorder on the stand. The brash discord of the car horn has summoned her, signalling the end of her visit. The music we played together is still troubling the air. Aftershocks. Absence grows and fills every cubic centimetre of space. It expands into the garden. The leaves are still quivering where her skirt has whisked around the blackcurrant bushes. The planks of the deck carry the vibration of her plimsolled feet and the echo reverberates through the passage at the side of the house. The flutter of wings marks the return of the birds. Beaks and claws reach greedily for food. Cruel black eyes glitter. The hungry cat looks up and is not fed.


Habit makes me tidy up. I must tend and cradle the instruments again. I pull the cloth through to remove the moisture of our breath. The shape of our souls is obliterated. No trace of DNA remains. Her little descant sits in my awkward hands like a rescued wren. The finger holes are rimmed in yellowish-white, like a blackbird’s eye. Ivory. Surely it can’t really be true that an elephant died to make this limited, little instrument? The holes are too small for my spatulate, string player’s fingers. It looks effete and unmanly in my grasp.


Her mother’s fingers used to fly over those holes. The music flowed in an effortless stream. That was before .... How does she live now, without music? Just the percussion of those sharp heels. Not even that today. Just the aggression of her car horn, summoning Julia to a flurry of departure. I meant to give her some sheet music—get her to practise something more demanding than English folk songs. But Julia responded to her mother’s imperious blast, a new brightness displacing the shadow of concentration from her face. They were going shopping.


I disassemble the descant recorder and stow the sections in their blue velvet compartments—sleeping beauties, awaiting a kiss of breath to bring them back to life. I pick up my own tenor recorder. The size and heft of it are better suited to my hands, but I don’t play it often now. Only with Julia. Its voice is woody; it has the soul of a tree. A tree full of birds. There is a lament there somewhere. All recorders lament. They have an edge of pain or sorrow, however fast and sweetly they play. Julia’s fingers know this. They wring every drop of sweetness from the music. It is the deep, complex sweetness of wild honey, not the facile, synthetic sweetness of saccharine. I can only hope that she will never fully know the significance of the underlying pain.


Julia’s mother, Marilyn, was possibly the most innately musical person I have ever met. It was as though she were physically incapable of being unmusical. We were both instructors on an early music course that took place every July in a large, crumbling house deep in the Wicklow mountains. My group consisted of talented string players whose only faults were an excess of gamba players (and not enough of the smaller viols) and an ineradicable contempt for the recorder players. Marilyn had the unenviable task of wringing music from an ill-assorted group of recorder players (who formed the majority of the participants), which was more or less evenly divided between elderly ladies, who were excellent but intolerant sight readers, and young primary school teachers, preparing for a dreaded change in the curriculum. The teachers had just broken up for the summer and were giddy with exhaustion and the hard liquor they had secreted in their backpacks. There was also a motley group of sackbutts, cornets, and a curtal who were banished to a cottage in the grounds. The group was known by the collective title of “Slartybartfast” and consisted mostly of elderly (gentle)men. They were sometimes ogled by the elderly recorder playing ladies but cast lascivious eyes on the young teachers. The eccentric, chain-smoking, harpsichord-playing lady who organised the course aspired to hold an end-of-course concert in which all participants would play and to which local and possibly even national dignitaries would be invited. This never happened.


Marilyn and I worked on this course for three consecutive years, initially out of economic necessity and then out of desire for each other. Our relationship was cemented over a series of predictable disasters, beginning with the nocturnal ramblings of one of the members of Slartybartfast. His colleagues came up to the main house at midnight one night to report him missing. Their instructor, exhausted after a trying day, attempting the Venetian music of Gabrieli, was deeply asleep, so Marilyn and I set out with a torch to search the extensive grounds. It was nearly three o’clock before we found him. He was wandering about in a state of undress, frightening the feral goats on the mountainside. Luckily, it was a warm summer night, so he didn’t appear to be suffering from hypothermia. Marilyn amazed me with her confident, competent practicality. She wore pretty, Liberty print dresses, thickets of colour that swirled around her as she moved. She seemed to be always in motion, always poised on one toe, about to take off in a pirouette. Her long, wavy hair moved independently, gleaming with its own light, and smelling of apples. She wore coloured leather clogs that she had painted with bright flowers and fruit. Surely no one could have expected this fey, charming creature to be able to deal with a crisis. But she was magnificent. She was completely unembarrassed by his scant clothing and appalling language. She said little or nothing, just draped a shawl about his shoulders and walked him carefully down the track. The sly old satyr took advantage of the situation to spend time alongside the most beautiful woman around. (I’m speaking objectively here). She calmly slapped his hands away from inappropriate places and greeted his outrageous suggestions with quiet, humorous dignity. When he had been reclaimed by his colleagues and escorted back to the cottage, Marilyn and I went back to the kitchen and made tea. She then amazed me again by producing a bottle of whiskey from a hidden cubby-hole and adding spirit to our night-time drink. We looked at each other across the scarred table and moved in a synchronised choreography.


Nowadays, Marilyn does not wear floating print dresses or hand-painted clogs. Her suits are sharply tailored, her heels are spiked. Her haircut can, I’ve been told, be described as “directional”. The short, clean-cut nails with their little white half-moons are replaced with talons lacquered in deep colours with names like “Dragon’s Blood” or “Orgasm”. She is all frenzy and impatience. Our little Julia is a sprite, a dream. She has the power to disturb. Whenever she leaves, it takes hours for the vibrations in the air to settle.


‘Bye, Dad’, tossed back over her shoulder. A falling third, like a doorbell.


Today, I pick up the tenor recorder and play again the harmony line that I have written for “Bonny Sweet Robin”. The sound is unconvincing, dull, and thin. Perhaps I am playing slightly flat. I try to adjust the breath pressure, to find the recorder’s woody voice, its throaty lament. It resists me, like a cat that refuses to settle in my lap. I move to my beloved gamba. Its spike reminds of Marilyn’s heels and brisk manner. I run my hands over its curves, which remind me, oddly enough, not so much of a woman’s body, as of the flanks of a chestnut horse. I tune it down to 415 and play some Bach. It sounds horrible, my intonation coarse and ragged. I tune it back up to 440 and try again. No better. I carefully put it back to sleep in its case. I pick up the tenor recorder again, but this time, I play the top line—Julia’s part. The tune is the same, but an octave lower, so that it sounds like a robin’s song sung by a different bird, perhaps a nightingale. The birds in the garden are squabbling around the feeders. I play the tune again, adding ornamentation, and a fat cock robin on the topmost branch of the rowan tree fluffs up his feathers to make himself appear bigger and sings lustily back at me. His tiny claws clench on to the branch. The music he makes crystallises out of the air, a golden precipitate. I recognise phrases. I play the tune again. The robin sings louder. The other birds fall silent. I stop and smile and put down the recorder. He keeps singing until I move back from the window, then flutters down to the deck. He puts his head on one side and assesses me with his humorous, clever eye. The air settles again in the room. The threatening cat slinks away into the hedge. The tenor recorder speaks with the voice of the forest. The empty garden blurs in silver light.

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