Sight Reading – A Short Story

I never understood how it could possibly work. How could you look at a spindly dot with a vertical line coming out of it, superimposed on a row of five horizontal lines (for that, I am told, is the representation) and translate it into a musical note? And how could you repeat that process for every note of the piece only infinitely faster, making the translation possibly hundreds of times a minute, or more, in the case of a pianist or organist, since the notes are layered one over the other?

It seemed a wonderfully uneconomical way of doing things – and no, I am not saying this out of sour grapes – inferior by far to the simple mechanism of hearing and repeating that I was compelled, by necessity, to use. Bar after bar, nuance after nuance were carefully noted and played until they were captured. Or a sufficient approximation. The semanticists claim there is no difference between the high langue and lowly parole of human discourse. Since langue, apart from an odd little system of raised dots, was denied me, I dealt exclusively with parole, the informal way of restoring what the composer or thinker intended. For the most part, I believed it to be enough.

Friends – acquaintances, rather – were discussing it one night in the bar. It had been one of those convivial times when the smoke hangs over everything without being too stale, the beer tastes mellow rather than brackish and the noise is pleasantly muted. One girl, her voice falling over itself to get the words out, was talking excitedly.

Only real musicians can do it,” she said.

I, having only caught the tail end of the conversation, cut in with interest:

Only real musicians do it, my dear? Or only do it for you? That’s unfortunate for us piddling amateurs.” (Laughter.)

No, of course I didn’t mean that, I meant sight reading. The professionals – the real classical musicians who play in orchestras and that – can just look at a page and then play it back. If you can’t do that, you won’t make it. You have to have a talent for it.”

There was an embarrassed silence where the girl realised she had made a possible faux pas. I raised my hand to prevent her from embarrassing herself further with a litany of apologies.

Wonderful, my dear. That I will have to add to my To Do list but first I must pass my driving test. I keep putting that damn thing off, I don’t know why.”

More laughter and the atmosphere relaxed. I could sense, in the girl’s relieved titters, that she was warming to me for taking her words in good part.

It was not a big deal. One might accuse me of being egotistical for saying this, but I do not generally consider myself a blind man, rather one with full sensory function who is hampered by living in an invisible universe which keeps banging into him and reminding him of its irritating reality as he goes about his day to day life. I adapt to this hostile world as best I can. The requisite cane and sunglasses accompany me when necessary, I have a barber’s appointment every week to ensure that my five o’clock shadow does not lengthen to a twelve o’clock one and unlike Milton, who had to rely on his wayward daughters to transcribe the greatest epic in the English language, Paradise Lost, I have my trusty Dictaphone to hand at all times. As a matter of fact, I am using it now, the day after the fact, to record this. When it is transcribed, one will note that there is not a punctuation mark missing; I am impeccable in my summary of each sentence. When one lives in an invisible universe, it is important to produce things that are as lucid as can be.

My collection of AudioBooks and CDs is considerable. I take pride in the fact that it covers one end of the far side of my living room to the other. I remember one afternoon adding a wonderful rare recording of Clifford Curzon playing Schubert and feeling nothing but solid wall in the space where I tried vainly to fit him in. I then knew the extent of my repertoire and rejoiced. Because, you see, whenever I bought a new CD of piano music, I would make an effort to master the piece, chord by chord, just by sheer dint of listening and listening. I would have to pause the player after every few seconds and play it back to get it right. The Moonlight Sonata was a breeze – all those lovely broken chords! Debussy was another one who was quite amenable to this technique, in fact I found it quite a challenge to “do” the French composers in this way, since their chord structures were so wonderfully hard to pin down. Some of the more difficult composers, such as Liszt, weren’t too bad when their fancy, twiddly bits were broken into units of sense, but the effort of aurally transcribing them was so exhausting that sometimes I would lie on my bed in a swoon afterwards, too drained to eat or even take a sip of water.

It was in the middle of one of these attempts that I got a phone call from the girl I mentioned earlier. Her name, as it happens, was Miranda; I always make sure I note details, however extraneous, since many of the most basic ones will forever elude me. Her message on my machine – I did not pick up – was breathy, as if spoken through a gap in the teeth. It reminded me of the sound of wind blowing through a chimney. It said hello, this is Miranda, Rob gave me your number, I thought I’d call and…well see how you’re doing, whether you feel like….whatever.

I decided I would return her call.

I did so on the same Tuesday evening she had made it. She answered readily, and after more small talk, wherein I listened carefully to the timbre of her voice to learn more of what I needed to know, we arranged to meet on the Thursday at my home. I was tempted to ask her if she would have taken the risk of going up to a man’s apartment were the man in question able to see, but I swallowed back my inquiry. As I said before, self-pity is not something I allow into my daily discourse.

The Wednesday was a fruitful day spent working – I have a part time job in the Complaints Department of a well-known mobile phone provider – and transcribing some of the Vallée d’Obermann to piano, a gruelling task indeed. I replicated it as best I could on my Yamaha Clavichord and then just before I turned in for the night it occurred to me that perhaps I should make a special effort to dust the apartment before Miranda’s arrival. Running my finger over the culpable surfaces – the television, mantelpiece, coffee table – I soon discovered the need for work and dusted assiduously. I have to be careful with stains. Cleanliness is so much entailed with what others can see. I live a hygienic, reasonably austere life, but for all I know I may still appear a slattern to others because of the bit of rubbish that escapes my attention or the telltale ring left by the mug. People have told me of these things and I have forced myself as a result to refrain from drinking coffee, among other things; a regrettable sacrifice, let me tell you.

But I digress; forgive me. I do not wish to be over-fulsome in detail about my routine up to Miranda’s arrival; suffice it to say that the last thing I did before retiring to bed was to have a shower and stimulate myself in order that I should not have any dreams that would, unknown to me, foul my clean sheets (therefore giving the lie to that remark women make about men’s fantasies being primarily visual in nature!) Whether or not the thoughts I used to accompany such manual activity concerned Miranda I really would not like to say – the lady’s privacy and subsequent events render any curiosity to that effect inappropriate. I woke the following day, took the bus to work and returned home at seven with Marks and Spencer’s finest. To those who would accuse me of being cavalier I would retort that it is some job chopping an onion when the whole activity becomes a random assay involving said onion, chopping board and an unfortunate finger. I did not want Miranda to be greeted by a scene out of a Hitchcock movie when she arrived at eight.

Well, five past. A good sign, that she was fashionably late. She had rung the bell hesitantly and I was there in five steps – a judicious interval. While the meal cooked and she laughed aside my apologies for the supermarket fare with a rather cloying over-eagerness, we sat down on the couch at a respectable distance from each other and talked. I was quite interested in the sight-reading issue she brought up the last time and I asked her to elaborate. But she appeared reluctant to do so.

I was crass. Please forgive me.”

There is no need to apologise.” I insisted, “If it had offended me I should not have mentioned it. What I believe, Miranda, is that sight reading is a defective way of interpreting music. Of course the fact that I lack sight will render me a bit biased, I agree.” She laughed. I continued, “But it seems so barbaric to translate that richness, the four-forty cycles per second that’s a concert A, those wonderful waves – to make it into this weird, disfigured little thing that sits on a bed of lines and is based rather crudely on the system of the binary factorial – could there not be an easier way, even for sighted people to sight read?”

We had drunk some wine and I articulated my opinion with more passion than I had perhaps intended; at any rate Miranda, without fully knowing what I meant, enthusiastically agreed with me – that I noted – and moved a little closer along the couch, close enough for me to smell the brand of deodorant she was wearing (Numberless bus rides in winter with the windows closed and steaming have rendered me an expert in deodorants) and the tang of shampoo in her hair. She had showered just before leaving, I guessed. I could also tell that she was wearing something like those fisherman sweaters they sell on the Aran Islands, as the chunky knots of wool chafed against my cotton polo. I felt her draw back and pull the cardigan around her; estimating correctly that she did so out of diffidence rather than repulsion, I brought the gathering of wool closed to me and sniffed it. Charmed by the intimacy, she brought her arm across and bent me into an embrace.

As I fumbled for her head to grasp – some men do it out of passion, I generally do it because there is no other way for me to find the woman’s lips – and brought her close, I felt her whole body give towards me. There was no attempt to deprive me of the wet folds of the mouth, the salty skin, the soft smoothness of a resting nipple. A full riot of senses came dizzyingly close and then stayed there. I was nearly overwhelmed by the feel of my body against hers – mentally overwhelmed, that is. Physically, there was nothing.

I knew why. My hands, tracing the groove of her hair’s parting, the hair’s consistency itself, the round droop of the breast-swell, the bridge of her nose between each eye, the orientation of the eye itself – those hands confirmed what all the other data had told me: the musty-woollen cardigan, the breathy, anxious voice, the overarching need-to-please. Miranda was not a sexually desirable woman and her favours were not in demand from other men. She was no great prize to capture.

Yes. This conclusion, as well as the manner in which I abruptly rid myself of Miranda before dinner had even started, telling her I had work to do on the Vallée d’Obermann and needed to be alone – this will repel anyone who has been attending to my story. But stop again. Why would you, a person who can see and therefore read this transcribed memorandum, allow yourself the freedom to make judgements every day for every person of eligible sex that you meet (and don’t insult my intelligence by denying it!) and then censure me for doing the same thing? I could not have assimilated my information about Miranda any earlier than I did. I had to touch her to be sure. Had I been able to, had I had your luxury, I would certainly have not put her through any unnecessary pain.

To tell you the truth, my impression of Miranda had been as close to the real, seen woman as those damned squiggly notes on a manuscript page are to Beethoven and Mozart. I could not read her in what is still the only, accepted way of doing so, the visual way. All right. I lied about being resigned to the invisible universe. I am not. It allows me no quarter, no opportunity to compete on any fair or level ground. I am a charity case, someone who is seen (there is that word again!) as easy game. Here is where somebody will wax lyrical about how I can perceive the true soul of a woman and not be hung up on the shallow exterior. Forgive me, but that is balls! I have the right to be shallow, to seek that beguiling, willful self-assurance of the beautiful muse. I, too, am a bard who sings of Helen’s beauty. Was not Homer, after all?

Ah. My anger gets the better of me. Memorandum to erase that section later. Anyway, divesting my apartment of Miranda proved to be a chore. With some confusion and anger on her part, and a little guilt on mine, it must be confessed, I finally had the place to myself again. It seemed more appropriate somehow. Miranda jarred with the ambience. That was another feeling I got when she was there. The air felt funny when she moved around in it. I must ask one of my friends if this phenomenon happens when they bring back a woman who is not attractive. After she had gone, I sat back, poured myself some more wine. Then, for some reason, rather than playing back the Liszt chord by chord as usual, I simply put on the whole track and heard it from start to finish, remaining passive, doing nothing to try and interpret it or change it. I felt the lavish scale-chords wash over me like a wall of rain, cleansing the taste of her from my mouth and mind.

Today, the day I am recording this on to the tape, is Saturday. My story is complete; it will soon be time to switch off the tape and put it in my archives.

I feel oddly reluctant to do so.

The archives are in an attic space and they cover most of the floor surface. I have been careful to record all my impressions of this invisible universe. Tape after tape, they are piled up in groups of about twenty or so, neat little mementos all presumably gathering dust. I won’t try and clean them.

Soon I will stop the tape, edit the flaws and inconsistencies, and add this one to the pile. It will be finished, like the others, waiting for somebody else to come and transcribe is. Someday I shall bring them all to the attention of the reading public. Until then – Until then –

Pause.

I have to admit that, as my finger hovers on the stop button, the glass of wine I have just drunk at eleven in the morning is causing me to feel an incredible kind of self-pity. I regret that. As I have noted previously, it is something I have always, if not always with success, tried to eschew. Ah, well. At least it is well-formed; I am impeccable in my summary of each sentence; one will note that there is not a single punctuation mark missing

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