LISP Short Story FINALIST, DARKNESS AND DISCORD by Pete Armstrong
DARKNESS AND DISCORD by Pete Armstrong
Alima couldn't remember beginning to play the violin, any more than she could remember beginning to talk or walk. She held it, stroked the bow, made it sing while she was in the womb. Music came to her as naturally as birds flew, as other children ran or climbed or counted numbers. It flowed through her. It was all she had.
The alarm rang for only a few seconds before she switched it off. Her eyes were already open, body clock set to the daily routine. She got out of bed and walked through to the bathroom, the upper parts of a familiar cadenza tumbling together somewhere at the edge of her consciousness.
She dressed carefully in European clothes: trousers, blouse, something made of wool to keep out the cold. Others in the block made an effort to wear clothes from home, a hijab or something over warmer stuff, but she didn't bother with this. Clothes had never interested her anyway.
Breakfast was taken alone, others in the flat had stopped making the pretence to join her. Her fingers tapped a gentle rhythm on the plate, the bare bones of a complex movement. It echoed the simplicity of her new life. Her old world was hidden in the lilting cadences of the melody, forever lost to her.
Each day started the same way; she liked the routine. Her brother shook his head, said she was mad to get up earlier than she needed to.
'What's the point? You don't even have to work anyway.'
But she took satisfaction from the precision of all the small details: each plate, cup, knife, each grain of food. She savoured every moment and for another day the world made sense.
It was when violence came to her home town that everything changed. At first it was only an interruption, an annoyance. She fretted at losing precious playing time when hiding underground. Others wept but not her; the closer the raging fury of the outside world came to them, the deeper she retreated behind walls of rhythm, colour and form. When her family had to leave, taking only what they could carry, she took her violin in its absurd, bulky case. She bore no spare clothes or water, only her instrument nestled in her arms.
After breakfast, she walked to work. It was a long way and it was cold. She struggled into her coat, set the violin case on her back, took a step forward, stopped, went back for hat and gloves — when would their necessity finally burn itself into her memory so that she could stop that double movement? — and opened the door. There were three flights of stairs down to the ground floor, bare concrete with a handrail she tried not to touch. Halfway down was a pile of stained cardboard and blankets, a neighbour whose application had not made it through. At the bottom was a portal for a front door and wires to provide security, but no actual door.
As she stepped outside she caught her breath on the painful chill of the morning air. It still felt terrible and new, even though it was now the only home she had.
Colleagues at the Cultural Centre told her to make a claim for transport. She could take a bus, submit a form and get paid for the fare, but there was no need. She wanted to ground herself and felt only relief as she walked, footstep after footstep, each one pushing her roots a little deeper into the soil.
The streets were covered in a thin sheet of white, enough to flatten out the pockmarks and uneven flagstones but not enough to impede her walking. Trees glistened in their winter colours, so different to spring and summer and autumn. Even the ragged street bushes were caught up in the beauty of the morning, overnight snow turned to a sparkling web by morning frost.
It was early. Other people were also on their way to work, but still the streets seemed quiet. They were not alive, vibrant, quick and dangerous as streets she had known. She walked in peace, hearing only occasional arpeggios fluttering off the trees.
They were on a boat in the sea. Absurd to use this word to describe that ragged bundle of wood and plastic drums. It was jammed full with people clinging together, each struggling to hold onto their own space. She no longer had her violin. They were at the mercy of the weather, no hope of survival if the wind and waves rose. There was no music in her head for escape because it had gone. She couldn't remember parting from it, only the weight of its absence. Each wave lapped up onto the drum in front of her. For a while, she could not shake away a menacing, static bass line. That was interrupted by wails of anguish at the first tragedy and after that she heard nothing.
She reached the Cultural Centre just before the sun rose. Several colleagues were sitting downstairs, finishing a last coffee before starting work.
"Hej, Alima, how are you?"
She was treated like a figure of wonder here because of how she played, though that was only a faint echo of what came before.
Alima took a cup and walked along the corridor to the drinks machine. Water dripped into the glass with a playful fugue, individual trills going their separate ways before colliding again as the stream gathered together.
There was a time of endless corridors, rooms, officials in formal jackets writing on reams of paper. Name? Age? What happened? Why did you leave? Alima was unable to speak. Unable to imagine returning to her own world. She didn't play, her fingers didn't move, there was no tune to push out. Her brother kept asking for a violin for her, but she said nothing.
The bigger classes were held in the Orkester Salon. It was early but the special class was already there. Alima could hear them as she got close to the door. They were excited, the staff always said how much they enjoyed the morning at the centre. They were noisier here than usual.
She entered to a strident clash of mismatched chords. Youngsters were running all over the place. Sheets of paper and some water had spilt on the floor. Everyone was making noise: either to make noise or because they were upset at the noise. Some looked over at the door when it opened and some did not. No one said anything in welcome, it was their way.
Alima put down her violin and took off her coat. No one had expected her to continue working with this class, but she felt a connection to these young people and asked to come back. They had a plan for these mornings, structure was important for the special class. Usually, they started by sitting down quietly in a circle, saying their names and introducing the musical instruments one by one. Sometimes the atmosphere wasn't right and it was impossible to get the circle going. Today looked like one of those days.
The first time she held a violin again was in the Assessment Centre. A lady in a smart jacket came to listen to her. Alima did not want to, was not able to, would not play, but the lady was softly spoken. Even though Alima could not understand what was said, she could not withstand the barrage of slow kindness, so she took an instrument and played a single movement, badly. Her stiff fingers made mistakes, she did not feel the melody. When she stopped the lady had tears rolling down her cheeks. She walked over, hugged Alima and said something very softly and earnestly.
She set the violin under her chin and began to play. It was a dotted melody, long chords interspersed with short, stabbing notes, bringing a delicious sweetness. The tune passed through her before emerging into the hall and for a moment it was like before, she was a part of the music and knew nothing else. But that never lasted now, already she was aware of her surroundings: the movement of people; tables with water bottles and hats all mixed together; interlocking wooden tiles on the floor; long curtains of some cheap fabric. Among them, she was just a musician doing her job.
Deep within, she sensed the torment of the young people in the hall. The notes flowed. Shrill, panicky voices softened, followed the tune. She felt the calmness it brought.
It was not what she had planned. This small hall in the far north with these torn and battered people. But it was here that the music finally brought an order for them all.
To darkness and discord, there came harmony.