Time’s Bending Sickle

Foreword:  This site contains two complete novels posted in serial form.  The first is “Four-Part Dissonance,”  begun in October 2009.  Its sequel, “Death and the Maiden,” followed.  To read these posts, begin with the earliest dated archive and scroll down to find chapter one.  Then scroll up for subsequent chapters.  The current novel, “Time’s Bending Sickle,”  begins below.

 

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1. Time’s Fool

 

 

The first shot was amazingly loud.  I was hiding under my office desk, a metal filing cabinet wedged between the desk and the door.  A splintered groove appeared in the floor a foot from my right hand.  I shrank further into the kneehole of the desk.  A second shot coincided with a warm sensation under my right shoulder blade.  I felt the metal wall of the desk behind me.  There was a bulge, still warm.   The bullet must have gone through the file cabinet and nearly made it through the desk.  Jesus.

“You shit!”  Abner Cross, the man who thought I was responsible for getting him fired three months ago, yelled through the door.  I hadn’t seen him, but I could picture him in his camouflage and orange hat, and I knew he had a new semi-automatic deer rifle.  Three more shots.  A long dent creased the outer wall of the desk by the kneehole, and I could see broken glass on the floor.  The acrid smell of gunpowder began to drift into the room.  I felt a warm wetness.  Oh, God, had I been hit?  My fingers came back wet but not red.  My bladder had emptied.

My friend Perry, who had been talking to me on the phone, had seen Abner enter the building in his hunting outfit and had given me enough warning to throw up the barricade.  He said he was calling the cops.  Where the hell were they?

“Tony!  You fucking pissant!”  Abner’s voice was high and frantic.  Bam, bam.  Clicking outside, ragged breathing.  He must be reloading.  Sirens, thank God.  More shots, more dents and splinters.

“Abner!” I shouted.  “I got fired too.  Stop shooting.  The cops are here.  Give up before they shoot you.”  I heard clicking and steps.  He fired again, my right calf stung, and my fingers came back red.  Abner must have figured out my position from my voice and was shooting from an angle.  Something kicked hard at my right thigh at the sound of another shot.  The smell of gunpowder grew stronger.  I couldn’t stay where I was.  I was about to head for the window when I heard a bullhorn in the hall.

“Drop your gun and lie down.”  Silence.  “Mr. Cross.  Drop your gun and lie down, and you won’t be hurt.  Now!”  Sobs, a metallic clunk, and soft bumps, followed by a rush of heavy steps.  “Mr. Cross, you are under arrest.  You have the right to remain silent. . . .”  There was the sound of the door being pushed.

“Mr. Maclean, are you all right?  Police here.”

“I’ve been hit, but I think I’m all right.”  What kind of logic is that?  But that’s what I said.

“Can you move any of the barricade, sir?”

“I don’t know.  I’ll try.”  I crawled out and, still on my knees, gave the desk a shove.  It moved a little.  I tried again, and then noticed that my thigh was bleeding a lot.  I don’t remember any more.

 

While I was in the hospital, I had a lot to think about.  Mainly, I thought about how close my sorry ass came to getting killed.  I thought a lot about what had led up to my wetting my pants hiding under a desk, and about what I would do next.  I had had a terrible day even before I got fired and shot, and I knew I would have more trouble waiting for me when I got out of the hospital.  But I also thought about a lot of other wierd stuff that I had experienced–I mean really wierd–and that it wouldn’t be right if I checked out without trying to describe it or account for it somehow.  Otherwise, everybody would say, there went another boring, sane, ordinary citizen.  What kind of life was that?  Well, I’ve had another life–almost.  When things settle down, I’d write something.  Things aren’t that settled, but here I sit at the word processor, giving it a shot.  I winced at that word, reading that last sentence, but let it go.

 

How to start?  Time is important, for tempus fugit. Time and tide wait for no man; but time hangs heavy. O tempora, O mores! My time is your time.  There will be time, time enough to drop a question on your plate.  Time tryeth truth.  Time heals all wounds, wounds all heels.  Double time, triple time, cut time, three-quarter time.  Tempus perfectus, tempus imperfectus.

Back in 1979 I was a neatly-dressed young salesman from an American computer services company in London on business.  The plane had landed late, and I awoke much too early.  I turned on the bath and steamed some of the wrinkles out of my clothes while I soaked.  My internal clock was off; I had not slept much on the plane; maybe I even had some kind of virus.  I heaved out of the bath, dried off, and began shaving.  The face in the mirror looked familiar: the hereditary circles under my eyes were a bit darker, and the black stubble on my chin seemed heavier.  I guess I looked older than my twenty-seven years.  Some of the fog in my head lifted as I dressed, but my loginess was not helped by the heavy breakfast of sausage, fried tomatoes, limp toast, and bad coffee.  I did not look forward to my presentation.  My job was to try to sell an old British bank on our new computer service.  I had not made a sale in some time, and was under considerable pressure to bring in some business.

The bank I was trying to sell had an IBM 360, a big mainframe, but to me at that time that was like quill pens and eyeshades.  Our company was an integrator: we got the best hardware for the job at the best deals, then did the software and ran the service for lower cost.  We did what IBM did, only without the priestly mystery and the high fees; moreover, we were not locked into one company’s hardware or software.

The bank’s central offices were in a grubby Victorian building on Threadneedle Street.  A crew was tearing up the street with a jackhammer, so I covered my ears and ran from the corner to the entrance.  The interior was much more attractive than the exterior: polished stone floors, dark woodwork, walls thick enough to muffle the work in the street.

The manager I spoke with looked a bit like a butler from central casting, but he was very sharp.  It soon became clear that our main competitor had been to see him, for he was loaded with lots of pointed questions about our service.  Their strategy was to suggest all kinds of things that could go wrong with our work that would be unlikely in their own.  There was some truth in each point, but the failures were, so far, more possibilities than actualities.  I had to defend our service, and point out the weaknesses in my enemy’s.  The first hour and a half of our meeting was spent ducking bullets and firing back.  Eventually I established enough of a beachhead for the manager to agree to consider a bid.  We started to work out specifications on which to base the bid.  He told me what they needed, and I told him what we would need to know about their operation.  We would meet again in two days, I would fly home with the information, and we would wire him our bid.

It was much harder than I had anticipated.  It was both exhausting and very boring.  Again I ran the gantlet of the jackhammer crew, and returned to Bloomsbury.  I found an Indian restaurant, had a good tandoori chicken, sag paneer, and a cold Heineken.  After a nap, I felt somewhat refreshed, but still in need of some therapy for battle fatigue.  London is a fine city, but that day I wanted to be in some other place.  I was jet-lagged, had a headache, and was feeling especially vulnerable as a failed musician, uneasy husband, and shy salesman.  Although I hadn’t made it as a professional cellist, I enjoyed playing chamber music with other amateurs, and had recently developed an interest in early music.  It had been weeks since I had had time for a session of string quartets, and I was feeling as deprived as a junkie in jail.  I fished out my international directory of fellow chamber music addicts, and called a London violinist.  I identified myself, mentioned the directory, and asked if it would be possible to find a group and a cello.  Cecelia Vaux was crisp, polite, but reserved.

“Actually, my regular quartet is meeting tonight.  I suppose you could come along and we could play the Schubert quintet.  We’re playing at our cellist’s flat, and he has another cello.”

“I’d enjoy that very much.”  I got directions to a flat in Hampstead.  After a cup of tea and a sandwich, I worked half-heartedly on the bank job for a while, then walked up to Tottenham Court Road and took the Northern Line underground to Hampstead.

Ian, the cellist, was a thin, cheerfully intense man in his thirties, with curly brown hair trimmed around the neck and ears but in a wild pile on top.  He welcomed me into a fairly large apartment furnished with a mixture of clunky English and clean Danish, with books and music covering most surfaces.  Cecelia and the other violinist, Derek, were also thirtyish but more distant at first.  The violist was a small woman in jeans and sweater whose face was obscured by brown bangs and large glasses.  She was another American, Ian was quick to tell me, over here on a Fulbright.  Her name was Marina something–an Armenian-sounding last name I didn’t catch.  Although her lips moved when we were introduced, I didn’t hear her say anything for some time.

The cello Ian loaned me was a sweet-sounding instrument, but the bridge was higher than I was used to, and it took me a while to adjust.  Ian insisted that I play the first part.  The other players were very good, but the violist was often outshouted by the rest of us.  She did make the long lines of the slow movement heard, and sustained them admirably.  We got better as we went along.

My nerves unkinked with the serene, gentle pull of the Schubert, and even the agitated parts were soothing because they fit and balanced and made the calm passages even sweeter.   Music was soul-balm for me, especially playing it, putting my own muscles, nerves, thoughts, and feelings in the service of the piece.  Passion, calm, wildness, anger, joy, all fit, and all were controlled and impelled by the music as my hands controlled the cello.

After the Schubert we dashed through one of the Boccherini quintets, fortunately not one with too much virtuosity in the first cello.  Then while Ian prepared a snack, we did the first movement of one of the quartets Mozart wrote for the cello-playing king of Prussia.  Ian was enthusiastic about my playing, and even Cecelia said, “Very nice.”

Over cool beer and cheese and chutney sandwiches, they politely asked me the usual questions about my job, music, home.  In return, I asked if they knew anyone interested in Elizabethan music.  Ian, Derek, and Cecelia answered almost simultaneously, “Arthur!”

Ian continued eagerly.  “Arthur Reed-Noble.  He knows all those chaps.  Plays lute, viol, recorders, sackbut–”

“Don’t forget the racket,” Derek added, showing that he thought the name of the instrument appropriate.

“He will occasionally condescend to play piano with us, complaining all the while about this decadent modern music–meaning anything written after 1700.”

“I’d like to talk to him if you think he wouldn’t mind.”

“The problem would be getting him to shut up,” Cecelia said with a sharp smile.

So I got Arthur’s phone number and an invitation to play with them if I came back to London.  As the party began to break up, Ian asked me if I would mind walking Marina to the bus stop.  I agreed, addressing my answer to Marina.  She mouthed her thanks, picked up her viola, and showed she was ready to leave. We said our goodbyes, stepped into the street, and walked silently for a while.  Then I asked her what she was doing on her Fulbright.

“Studying number theory in change ringing.”

“Oh.”  I had the vague feeling that I should know something about what she said.  Yes.  “Oh, bells.  Like Dorothy Sayers–”

The Nine Tailors.”

“Unusual topic.”

“Yes.  It’s not easy for a mathematician to get a grant for England.”  She hesitated.  “What does your wife do?”

I glanced down.  She was looking straight ahead.  “She does some volunteer work.”

“Do you have children?”

“No.”

“Why did you go into business instead of music?”

I hesitated again.  “That’s a long story.  Basically, I wasn’t good enough to play professionally.”

We were passing a bus stop, where a red double-decker had just pulled up.  “Thanks for the company.  This is my bus.  You play pretty well.”  She gave me a quick smile.

I said good night and crossed the street to the tube station.  I had enough on my mind, but she had managed to hit three sore spots in as many sentences: my job and music, my wife, and children.

 

The next day I felt better, though still a little blurred around the edges.  I had no work that I couldn’t postpone for a while, so I indulged in another hobby–or rather an escape.  I went to the British Museum.  I had seen a few of the pieces a seventeenth-century English composer named Tobias Hume had written for viola da gamba, and was curious to see the British Museum copies of his rare publications.  I hoped to transcribe some of the pieces for cello–just for my own amusement, and for that of the professor at North Texas State who had written a letter that got me a reader’s pass.  For a few hours I could forget about the presentation I had made, the cold reserve and skepticism it met, and the rejection that might–that probably would result.

When I entered the main reading room, I stopped and looked around that beautiful round space for several minutes, only gradually moving from the architecture to the inhabitants.  As one would expect, there were middle-aged gray men in tweeds, scruffy, harried-looking younger men and women who must have been graduate students, a long-bearded man in a skullcap turning pages left to right, and an old man in a frayed olive-drab overcoat staring at the peak of the dome and muttering toothlessly to himself.  I was then startled to see a figure who seemed to jump from my grandmother’s photo album–a little girl in a white sailor dress with a white cap over vivid orange corkscrew curls was bent over a thick volume, rapidly writing in a notebook.  I moved toward her, and saw that although she was small, she was old; despite her hair and costume, she must have been in her seventies.

I followed directions to the North Library, where readers examined the older and rarer books.  I turned in the slips for my books and took a seat at one of the long tables.  The balcony running around the room was dark, made darker by the pools of light from the lamps dividing each of the study tables.  A man at the next table had built a wall of books around himself on three sides.  He hunched forward, occasionally low enough for the light to glance off his bald head.

I yawned and stretched and stared into space, drifting away, until an ascetic-looking Indian librarian brought my books, thin folios bound in leather and marbled boards.  I picked up Captaine Humes Poetical Musick (1607), and happened to open it to a “Hunting Song,” which had an amusing text with a catalog of the names of the hounds, and the music imitated various hunting calls and noises.  A note printed at the end of the song said that it was “sung before two Kings, to the admiring of all brave Huntsmen.”

One king was probably James.  I looked up into the shadows above the row of lamps.  The shadows began to blur and brighten, then move.  I felt very strange.

 

A crowd of people were milling about noisily in park-like forest land.  Most were not very tall and not very clean, and were dressed in Renaissance costume–some in long gowns and kerchiefs, some in doublet and hose, some in leather breeches and short jackets, most of the men in flat caps.  There was movement in the distance: the crowd simultaneously pressed toward and gave way to a group of authoritative-looking men who were pushing ahead of several gentlemen on horseback.  These were more elaborately and colorfully dressed, some with ruffs, short cloaks, and high-crowned hats; some carried spears, bows and arrows, crossbows, and coiled hunting horns.  As they moved closer, the crowd cheered.  Some of the men on foot held barking dogs on leashes.  In the middle of the group on horseback, flanked by the most elegantly dressed young men, were a man of about forty, with drooping eyelids and slack jaw, and a stout, plump-cheeked man about ten years younger.  The older man seemed to be watching the fat on his companion jiggling with the movement of his horse.  He glanced away with a slight twitch of his upper lip, and gazed at the buttock of the young horseman ahead of him. This flesh was also moving slightly under the tight stocking, but the older man’s eyes did not wander.  He scratched at his crotch.  An especially noisy shout seemed to recall his attention to the dust, the heat, and the presence of the mob.

Right on the edge of the crowd a tall man in a worn leather jacket was sawing away on a six-stringed viola da gamba, his mouth moving as though he were singing rather than shouting, but he could not be heard over the crowd.  The viol-player was standing, with his instrument resting on a stool, instead of sitting with the viol between his knees in the normal fashion.

The troop passed on.  A horn sounded, the hounds’ barking changed pitch as they were released, and the horsemen galloped away, raising more dust.  The crowd began to disperse.  The tall viol player looked after the hunters with a disappointed air, replacing his cap on his sandy hair.  The way his eyebrows sloped down toward the corners of his blue eyes gave him a look of worried puzzlement, innocent concern.  He appeared to be in his mid-thirties, and wore a full reddish beard.  He tucked the bow under the strings of the viol, adjusted a strap around its neck and waist, and slung it over his shoulder.  Sighing heavily, he picked up his stool and moved off.  A man in a spotted leather coat who had been standing by him in the crowd, one of several staring at him now that the hunters had passed, called out, inviting him to join him in a cup of ale.  The viol player started distractedly, then thanked his new acquaintance and walked off with him, replying briefly to his questions and smiling wanly at the other’s jibes.

 

The scent of sweat and garlic hung in the air, probably from the black-haired scholar with Mediterranean features who had taken the place across the table from me.  I handed in the book at the desk and wandered out into the museum, coming to rest in front of the Elgin Marbles, the sculptures taken from the Parthenon.  The cool rationality of their form was at first ressuring.  But then I became aware that the figures showed men struggling with imaginary monsters, the centaurs, and my uneasiness drove me out of the building and into the pub across the street.  The one stiff scotch I had there hit my jet-lagged brain like half a bottle.  I made it to my Bloomsbury hotel and collapsed on the bed, just managing to kick off my shoes.

 

I awoke from a nightmare about centuars and remembered the questions Marina the viola-playing mathematician asked me.

I have mixed feelings about the days that made these subjects sore, but they are part of the picture.  I was a music major in college, but was also pretty good at math.  Jean came into my awareness during my senior year.  I had been sailing along, surfing on music, with no clue as to what would happen when I graduated; it was like voyaging on a flat-earther’s world–after June I’d drop over the edge.  I had dated other girls, but I had never met anyone like Jean; she was glamorous, worldly, and quick.  We met in a math class.  I overheard her speaking to another girl about how “a robot would be better than that prof.”  I spoke up, relating an account I had read of a computer that could teach, and mentioning another prof who was more personable.  This was still during the time that computers were big, expensive monsters used mainly by scientists and big business.  She turned a sharp, appraising eye on me and took up a conversation that turned into a long coffee break, and then a lunch.

She was smart and knowledgeable, but was interested more in the power computers made available than how they worked.  She liked what she could grasp quickly and easily–which was quite a bit–but she lost patience when faced by a complex process.  But I was interested in other things about her.  She had long, full, dark hair, bright green eyes, and a great figure–curvy and wiry at once.  I was then only subliminally aware that she was expensively turned out.  She told me later of the designers who were responsible for her slacks and sweater; I learned that the fit and cut of these garments could be obtained only at some expense.  She was from Dallas; her family lived in University Park, and owned a computer business.

I was totally smitten.  Not only was I attracted by her looks and intelligence, but she had a way of keeping me on edge, of approaching and withdrawing, warming and cooling, that somehow took me over.  At first, she continued to date fraternity boys, which drove me wild.  But then, after seeing her on the arm of some big Deke and batting her eyes, I would hear her knock on the door of my practice room and invite me to a break.  She would make fun of the frat boy and his friends, laughing about how dumb they were.  At times she would casually lean on my shoulder and give my arm little squeezes; at other times she would be silent and distant.  On these occasions, desperate to break the ice, I would ask if I had said anything to irritate her.  “If you don’t know,” she said once, “it wouldn’t do any good to try to explain it.”

I tried to interest her in my older love, music.  Like many other young women of her class, she had taken piano lessons.  She still had some facility, but our attempts at playing sonatas were not successful.  She was used to playing by herself, so she could not keep the beat, and would not listen to the other part; I would try to follow her, but we would get further and further apart until we had to stop and start over.  After a few attempts she would get bored and want to talk.  She could still rattle through some of the Chopin and Liszt she had learned, but her approach was more athletic than aesthetic.  So after a while, without anyone saying anything, we stopped trying to make music. She would go to concerts with me and seemed to tolerate my music, up to a point–that point being when she wanted my attention.

She wanted my attention more and more as we got closer, and I was glad to give it, because it usually involved sex.  For us, unlike most of our contemporaries, this meant a lot of heavy petting and sticky underwear, but technical virginity.  Jean was desperately afraid of getting pregnant, and I could not convince her of the reliability of any birth control method.  But the promise, the possibility of a true consummation kept me attentive and eager to please.

As the cliff of graduation approached and the intensity of our sexual frustration grew, we knew something had to happen.  I was in too much of a fog to articulate anything.  I wanted her, I wanted music.  My senior recital was approaching, and I was practicing furiously–but I was also spending a lot of time with Jean.  I slept little, and stayed exhausted.  Once I fell asleep during a necking session, and caught no end of hell from Jean; she was seriously offended that I couldn’t stay awake when she was around.

The recital was a disaster.  I had a tough program, but I had insisted on it because I loved the music: Bach’s fifth unaccompanied suite, Brahms’s second sonata, and the Haydn C-major concerto.  Technique was never my strongest suit, and fatigue and nerves tangled my fingers too many times.  My friends were polite, Jean at least verbally sympathetic.  The principal cellist from the local symphony, who was in the audience during the first half, disappeared during the intermission.  My teacher, having seen my state during the preparation time, had warned me of such a result.  He had the kindness to refrain from saying “I told you so.”  The post mortem was nonetheless grim.  I remember sitting in his studio looking at the autographed pictures of his teachers–Diran Alexanian, Casals–and hearing his soft, serious, slightly accented voice tell me things I needed to know but didn’t want to hear.

“Tony,” he sighed, rubbing his bald head, “I hate to say this, but I think you should not try playing the cello as a profession.  I had thought your many other good qualities might see you through.  You make a nice sound, you have a lot of good musical instincts, as well as an intellectual understanding of music.  But you don’t have the nerves or the facility to make a good orchestra player, much less a soloist.  It’s just too competitive.  You could do school music, or better, academic music–theory, musicology.  But if you keep on with just the cello, your struggles might make you go sour on something you love, and that would be a shame.”

I was too numb to be defensive, so the words sank in.  I had begun to think of auditioning for an orchestra job that summer, but now that idea was revealed as the daydream it was.  The other possibilities my teacher suggested all involved more school, and I shrank from the prospect of more classes or scrambling for money or grants to pay for them.

Jean was ready with an answer which was all the more attractive coming from her.  She was sure, she said, that she could get me a job in her father’s company.

“He would be especially interested in helping you if we were married.”  She looked at me straight on, without blinking, slowly growing a smile.

I was floored.  I had expected a prolonged seige to persuade Jean to go steady, and to have this suggestion come from her knocked me over.  It also seemed to solve all of my problems.  So we got married.  Jean insisted that we do it fast and cheap, and present her parents with a fait accompli.   We went to a justice of the peace in a nearby small town, thinking that the college chaplain might call our parents.  My mother was upset, but accepting–I was the first in our branch of the Macleans to go to college, and my mother and uncles tried to make up in moral support for what they could not offer in money.  My father was dead.  Jean’s mother was furious, for we had deprived her of a big church wedding.  She never forgave me for that and for being only a Tennessee Maclean.  Jean’s father was not happy–he had to live with her mother’s rage, for one thing–but he was philosophical.  He was also relieved a bit after talking with me to find that I had a smidgen of common sense and some practical skills, and that I knew a little about his business.  He might get some use out of me, and get me to where I could support his daughter.

The honeymoon–two nights in a Holiday Inn on the coast–was less of the orgy my heated imagination had pictured.  Jean’s fear of pregnancy was only slightly modified by the wedding, so in addition to taking the pill, she insisted on using both a diaphragm and a condom.  Spontaniety often suffered.  I was also surprised, after our long, sweaty premarital sessions, that Jean’s sexual appetite was much more quickly satisfied than mine.  But we did find a closeness we had not known before.

So we graduated.  I stuck my cello and my few clothes into Jean’s new car–a graduation present, bought before the wedding–and we set off for Dallas.

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