Donal Moloney grew up in Waterford. His story My Cat, My Bad, My Lot will be published this September in Boyne Berries. A story called Not Here has just been published in Monash University’s Verge anthology. His story Bad Influence was published in the spring 2015 issue of The Moth. A story titled The Grind appeared in the Stinging Fly anthology Sharp Sticks, Driven Nails. An excerpt from his story The Mask appeared in the Seven Towers anthology Census. He lives in Cork, where he is working on a collection of short stories.
By Donal Moloney
She was sitting cross-legged on the floor and wearing the baggy orange t-shirt she used as a nightdress. Aine was her name. I was lying on her bed underneath the open window. The blind was down – it was always down – because the apartment opposite looked right in.
It’s hard to do justice to the untidiness of her room. Let’s just say that I only realised the carpet was bright blue the fourth or fifth time I visited; or that once I picked a brassiere off the bedside table (I was looking for my wristwatch) and cigarette ash tumbled out of the cups.
Without explaining what she was looking for, she had just spent five minutes searching the room. “I’m not going to my lectures this morning and you’re not going to yours,” she had decreed in a half-sleep when I started shifting in the bed at around eight. Eventually she found a coverless CD wedged between a pair of running shoes. She wiped it in her t-shirt and inserted it in the portable CD player. A few seconds later a yearning tune came out. It sounded like a violin, the instrument Aine played. Sitting there cross-legged in the semi-dark, she told me a story:
“When I was twelve, my parents did up the spare room and started running a B&B on the side. One evening, I was on my way to the hot press to get a towel when I heard this music” – she gestured to the CD player – “coming from the room. There was a Frenchman staying there. I can still picture him, he had big eyes and bushy brown hair.
“I brought the towel to my mother and went back to my jigsaw. I was mad about jigsaws back then.”
“What’s a jigsaw?” I interrupted.
“You know, with all the pieces you put together to make a picture. What do you call them?”
“Yeah, puzzles, jigsaw puzzles. Anyway, I sat down in front of the jigsaw and picked up a piece and put it back down again. Before I knew it, I was tiptoeing down the corridor towards the guest room. When I got there, I saw down beside the door and listened.
“It was a few weeks after my dog Billy went missing. He was a Border Collie. Did you ever have a dog?”
“No,” I said. “My father didn’t like them. We had hamsters.”
“Even still, you can probably imagine how I felt: I was twelve years old and an only child and my parents used to fight all the time. They’d already given up Billy for dead, but I still checked the basket twenty times a day and screamed his name up the fields and down the roads.
“On that day, sitting outside the Frenchman’s room, I listened to the music and thought about Billy. Really thought about him and about him being lost. But at the same time – and as strange as the music was to me – I really listened.
“I must have sat down outside the door near the start of the concerto and I stayed there until the end. I remember the slow movement passing like one dreamy thought. And then came this unbelievably … I don’t know – here, I’ll just play it instead.” She skipped forward on the CD (to the start of the third movement, as I now know).
Since that morning, I’ve listened to this piece of music so many times that I can’t properly tell you what my initial impression was. It’s more honest not to even try. But from my current perspective, here’s what came out of the speakers at me: a long melody that was more rational, deep-going and satisfying than anything I have found on this Earth since.
My face must have expressed the pleasure I was feeling, because Aine’s face lit up with recognition when she looked up at me. In the dim room, there she was, beaming: white teeth, orange t-shirt, pale knees.
“When I heard this,” Aine continued, “I knew Billy was dead and that my parents would split up and that I’d be OK. And when the rondo kicked off, I felt happy – strong and happy. Sometimes I think my teenage years were so disciplined – all the single-minded practise to learn the violin – because I went through an accelerated version of it during that one evening.
She skipped back to the slow movement, stood up out of the gloom and leaped up beside me. Running her fingers through my hair – thinking back now, I’m touched by how affectionate she was – she continued her story:
“The next morning, I was laying out the breakfast things and whistling a tune from the concerto – probably the opening theme – when the Frenchman walked in. He coughed and smiled over at me. ‘I’m sorry if the music was loud yesterday night,’ he said.
‘No, I liked it.’
‘What did you like about it?’
I had to think hard about that. ‘It’s so clear,’ I said after a minute, hardly knowing what I meant.
‘Precisely what I like too – so marvellously clear’” (Here Aine did an excellent impersonation of a French person battling with the word “marvellously”).
“‘You have a very good understanding, I think.’
“He was gone all day and left early the next morning before breakfast. When I got up, I found an envelope with my name on it on the table in the hall. Inside was his cassette with the violin concerto.”
She went silent for a minute, and the music filled the space. Her long curls sprawled across my shoulder. She wriggled over closer and cuddled right up against me. “And that’s why I chatted you up the other night,” she said. “Because you’re German.”
“I thought you said the guy was French.”
“He was. Mendelssohn was German though.”
“Of course,” I said.
Well, that explained it. I had wondered why this beautiful girl had come up to me and taken me home. Knowing this made me feel more comfortable with the situation. I wasn’t a great conversationalist and don’t presume to be a great lover. I already knew that this affair we were having didn’t have a lot to do with me. I was in the right place at the right time, that’s all.
The place was a bar near Cork Insitute of Technology and the year was 1994. I was nearing the end of a lonely and fairly pointless semester in Ireland. The courses I was attending didn’t really complement my mechanical engineering studies back in Oldenburg. I didn’t make any friends. And Cork wasn’t a place that made me happy. Whatever it was that made me apply for a semester abroad hadn’t been satisfied by the experience.
So I studied my engineering textbooks like never before and worked hard on my English. And in the evenings, when it wasn’t raining, I went on long walks.
On one of those walks it started to rain heavily and I took shelter in a pub. I was sitting at the bar in my steamed-up glasses and dripping windcheater when Aine came up to me and talked nineteen to the dozen (blame my dictionary if no one actually uses that expression). She invited me over to their group and they were a friendly bunch. There was even another German, who studiously ignored me. One of the guys there was called Francis, and Aine was in love with him, as I found out later.
That accounts for why she picked me up in the first place: to make Francis jealous. But you can make a lover jealous just by flirting with someone else. She didn’t have to screw me every night for a week. For that, I can only thank the melancholy Frenchman and Felix Mendelssohn.
The love story was between her and Francis, though, and one evening he called to her door and they whispered urgently there for an hour. The next day, she didn’t answer when I knocked and got angry with me when I turned up at the music building.
Looking back now, all I feel for Aine is gratitude. She gave me exactly what I needed at that time: sexual experience. I had slept with a couple of girls at home before, but that was teenage stuff. After the week with Aine, I was ready for the adult world of sexual relations. And a few years later, when it came to seducing my wife, I was drawing on confidence Aine had given me.
At the time, though, when being given the shove for Francis, I was invaded by feelings that belonged more to the comedy of love than to my actual situation. I’m not proud to admit that the very last time I spoke to Aine, I scolded her and accused her of using me. And if that wasn’t petty enough, the last words I ever spoke to her were: “You should really clean your room.”
Yes, Aine gave me what I needed and ultimately so did Cork. For all my unhappiness there, it was the place where I got serious about my studies, gained sexual experience and was introduced to Mendelssohn’s music.
When I got back to Oldenburg, I slipped right back into German life, and Cork and Aine fell away. Now I haven’t had so many sexual partners in my life to pretend that I forgot her or that she couldn’t have made a lasting impression on me. All the same, what emerged with force into my life while Aine and Cork faded was Mendelssohn’s music.
Naturally enough, I got the violin concerto first and listened to that almost every night for months. After that, I started exploring the symphonies. And just when I thought I had almost exhausted the fascination – that I was glimpsing the limits of Mendelssohn’s genius – I heard the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture. And then there were the other overtures and the Songs Without Words. And the octet, which seemed to me for a long time to be the most special piece of all, maybe even the happiest piece of music ever written.
When people asked me back then if I liked classical music, I would say I liked Mendelssohn. When one girl I dated asked if that wasn’t a bit obsessive, I happily conceded that it was. It was nothing new for me: obsession and single-mindedness were my way of dealing with the world since I was a boy – whether it was collecting Panini stickers or making highly elaborate model aeroplanes. Nevertheless, I branched out and listened to other composers too and the whole experience was very rewarding. I studied hard and listened to lots of music and my life was very full.
If my love of classical music was born in Ireland, it turns out that my taste was robustly German: Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms. And later when I read my first biography of Mendelssohn, it was gratifying to learn that his taste was almost exclusively German too. Often I have wondered whether it was the Germanness of Mendelssohn’s music that called out to me in my Cork solitude. Could it have been homesickness that attracted me to the music? Could the special clarity that Aine and the Frenchman found in the music have revealed itself even more brightly to my German heart? Is it possible that his music embodied an essentially German intellectual universe (Geisteswelt) that survived even the middle decades of the twentieth century and was shared by me?
Early during my stay in Cork, I went to a folk recital. Accompanied by a harpist, a singer incanted old Irish songs in a quavering voice. With her lush red hair, embroidered dress and expressively shut eyelids, she looked the part, and my fellow foreign students were in raptures. But I couldn’t help wanting to experience some neutral rendition of the song without the singer’s interpretation of the past. That’s how I understood the closed eyes and the vibrato anyway – as a privileged reaching into the past to bring back some message; as if she were a shaman or a clairvoyant.
I learned how to read music in school and I wondered what the sheet music looked like. When was the music written down first? It’s not that I doubted the singer’s sincerity, just that I couldn’t see how she could reach any distance into the past with any certainty. Ultimately, I suppose, I wanted her to proceed more like a scientist. And sure enough, when I foolishly expressed my reservations to my fellow foreigners afterwards, I was dismissed as an engineer.
In my enumeration earlier of German composers, I left out Wagner. And yet I liked the Tannhäuser overture before I found out how dispiritingly bad his anti-Semitism was. And I should also mention that when I read about his attack on Mendelssohn, my gut response was partisan. When I tell you that I have no appetite for separating out Wagner’s genius from the bombast and overheated mythological fantasies, it is precisely that: a matter of appetite, taste, distaste. I make no claims to aesthetic objectivity. But I’ll say this: his attack on Judaism in music was conniving and hateful; and although I’m as happy as anyone else to forgive great minds all kinds of great faults, I don’t really want my geniuses conniving and hateful.
When I graduated, I got an apprenticeship at a small company in Augsburg that custom-built and serviced thermoforming machines for big manufacturers. Moving to southern Germany made me feel lonely, and again I responded by working hard. Not only that: it turned out I had a real facility for designing systems and solving complex mechanical problems – an ability to think myself into situations was how my boss characterised it. After the many years of study, it was pleasing to see the real world bend so readily to my skills. When my apprenticeship ended, I was kept on.
I met my wife Sabine at a Mahler concert. She was sitting beside me in a cocktail dress that showed off her glorious legs. In front of us was a drunk man who had fallen asleep and was snoring, and whose wife was whispering furiously into his ear. Now Mahler is subtle enough even without losing a few minutes to snoring, so I leaned forward and flicked him hard on the ear. I did this fearlessly because I was twice his size and sober. He let out a squeak and the snoring stopped. His big ear glowed bright orange. Sabine, with whom I had yet to exchange a word, patted me on the hand.
Over a drink later, I found out that she was a music teacher. She spoke knowledgeably about Mahler’s music, and I played the role of lumbering engineer who was trying to improve himself with some culture. I mentioned liking Mendelssohn but – wary of coming across obsessive – left it at that. When she asked about my work, I knew better than to go into details, although I did let it drop that I’d recently been promoted.
Concerts formed the backdrop to our courtship. Augsburg has a lively classical music scene, and sometimes we drove down to Munich. Sabine chose the concerts. We heard a lot of twentieth-century music, and of the Romantic composers she had a strong preference for Schubert.
And so it continued for two years – one either side of our wedding – until our daughter Julia was born, which changed everything. Even after the initial phase of extreme sleeplessness was over (Julia cried a lot and took a long time to sleep through the night), the lack of a babysitter prevented us going out. Although Sabine’s parents lived nearby, they had an attitude Sabine described as emotional reticence and that I knew was closer to genuinely not caring. Sabine’s friends had all either moved away from Augsburg or – in the case of her best friend Petra, a midwife – worked nights. And Sabine was too protective to entrust Julia to a stranger.
Anyway, we had plenty to be getting on with. At the end of Sabine’s maternity leave, Julia wasn’t even close to being weaned and Sabine wasn’t emotionally ready to go back to work. She applied for a year’s sabbatical and her school agreed. The combination of the baby costs and the lost salary put big pressure on our finances, and I asked for extra hours at work. My boss, never a man to overlook an opportunity, gave me everything I needed.
When Julia was eighteen months old, Sabine became pregnant again and quit her job altogether. She had never liked the school anyway and had fought with some of the other teachers. When my boss found out, he actually clapped his hands in glee. So I worked like a demon and we started looking for somewhere bigger to live. My boss went guarantor on our mortgage application, which enabled us to buy a two-storey apartment in a part of town with good schools. Shortly after we moved in, our daughter Sarah was born.
Sabine took the lead in rearing the girls and made all the important decisions about their upbringing. That was fine with me – Sabine made good decisions and the girls were happy. When I wasn’t working, I changed the girls’ nappies, made them mash, and took them out in the pram and buggy. I took them to the playground and drove them to school. I did all the things modern dads do. But the number of hours I could do them in was very limited. In fact, it was so limited that it rarely felt like work at all.
Now I’m well aware that nobody wants to listen to a gushing parent – and a dad least of all – so I’ll say this and no more: my girls were a blessing and I loved spending time with them.
I was minding Julia one Saturday afternoon, and the CD of children’s songs that had been playing all morning was doing my head in (an expression I picked up in Cork). Julia must have been around two at the time; in any case it was before Sarah was born. I looked through my CDs for something I could enjoy and that might also appeal to a toddler. The Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture leaped out at me. I swayed her and bounced her on my knee for the slow bits, marched her in circles for the fast bits, and lifted her up and down in rhythm to the orchestra’s braying noises.
After that, Julia wanted to listen to “The Dream” all the time. And not only did she never tire of it, neither did I. We listened to the overture maybe three hundred times over the next six months, and the music always seemed fresh and cheerful to me. Even now I can see Julia’s little face light up as she realised a fast bit was coming. I can still feel her bouncing up and down on my forearm as we marched around. “Your daddy is a rude mechanical” (lumpiger Handwerker) I would tell her. “Roomanical” (Lumpenkerker) she would giggle.
When Sabine saw us dancing for the first time, I felt very self-conscious, and Julia was subdued too. Sabine commented on the fun we were having in the same strained tone she used when I slept it out on a Saturday morning and she praised me for my good long rest. I tried to include her a couple of times, but when she resisted I dropped it. Soon Julia and I danced only when Sabine wasn’t around.
When Sarah’s turn came to be bounced around on my arm, she expressed a clear preference for Brahms – the Hungarian Dances to be precise. Initially, I was put out by her having her own mind so young. But, once I had considered it properly, and let paternal pride retrospectively shape my attitude, I appreciated how wonderful it was. Didn’t it reflect well on her mind, her judgement, I thought. Didn’t it bode well for her. How perfect it all was – one little girl who loved Mendelssohn and another who loved Brahms.
Of course, Wagner was on the top shelf of the CD rack, and I didn’t try out any Schubert on the girls either. In other words, I limited their choices and then rejoiced even when they chose something unexpected like the Hungarian Dances. The girls were under my influence, and I was under the influence of my pride and love. Don’t hate me for it, though – leave me be. The time was short enough and now it’s gone.
Over time we got to know our neighbours, including the parents of a teenage girl who did babysitting. Once Sarah was weaned, we booked the babysitter and went out for a meal and a concert. At the Japanese restaurant, it was exhausting to look at each other across the table, and we struggled to talk of anything besides the children.
The concert, which Sabine chose, was a recital of Schubert lieder. For all that I admired them, the songs left me emotionally cold. However much I tried to enjoy Schubert and enjoy lieder, it just wouldn’t happen for me. When we got home and relieved the babysitter, we quickly made for opposite corners of the apartment.
Physical intimacy, we gradually discovered, was best accomplished in the thick of the night, under the bedclothes, in a skirmish that had nothing to do with the emotional trajectory of the day.
We had a row when the programme for the next concert season came out. This was noteworthy because, as the quiet middle child of a volatile family, I am expert at avoiding conflict. We had decided to go to two concerts that season, and Sabine had assumed I’d give her free choice. I would have too, if Mendelssohn’s ‘Reformation’ symphony hadn’t been on the programme.
“I’ve never heard it live,” I told her.
Sabine wrinkled up her nose. “It’s not his best piece.”
“No, but there are parts of it I really love,” I said. That wasn’t quite true. I loved it all, even the bits I knew were flawed. There was something about the ‘Reformation’ symphony that seemed quintessentially Mendelssohn to me. It was like a charismatic friend, or a brilliant character in a novel – you don’t care too much about their flaws, you just want to be in their company.
“But if we’ve just two concerts for the whole year and to be bored for the whole first half of one of them …”
“I don’t find it boring. It’s not perfect, I can see that. But it’s not boring.”
“OK, but all the same, why don’t we go for something more substantial?”
So there we were: insubstantial, an aesthetic judgement. And one with some truth to it: the ‘Reformation’ symphony wasn’t as substantial as the ‘Italian’ or ‘Scottish’ or even the choral one. What it did have was a warmth and a charm and a brilliance and an intellectual clarity that you just can’t find in many other symphonies. However, warmth and charm weren’t great arguments for countering the charge of insubstantiality. As for brilliance, a hostile mind can give that one quick twist to imply superficial sparkle. That left me with clarity, which was even more exposed: to denigrate a clear thing, all you need to do is put the word “too” in front of it. I left aesthetics out of it and moved onto the terrain of fairness.
“Why don’t we pick one concert each?”
“Look, why go at all if we can’t agree,” said Sabine. “We can just go for a meal.”
I looked at her in horror. A meal? I knew that she was serious too. Concertgoing had served its purpose. Now we would go for meals. And how was I going to tell her that I hated Japanese food?
Because Sabine was a music teacher, calling her aesthetic judgement into question felt like treachery – and all the more so because she wasn’t working outside the home. So I started conducting the argument in my head. I didn’t just take her on either, but all those who found Mendelssohn’s music unadventurous, backward-looking, twee. If you take individual minor works, I would say to the critics, you could make arguments for some of these charges. But what about the masterpieces? Where are all the other composers with as many masterpieces? When you criticise Mendelssohn, you’re always saying he wasn’t a composer of the first order, except for the violin concerto and ‘Italian’ symphony, and the octet. And not forgetting the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture. And the Hebrides Overture of course. The piano trios? Oh yeah, beautiful – they can go in. And the ‘Scottish’ symphony – well, if we were being strict … actually, no, go on, you can have that one. The string quintets and the early quartet? Yeah, you’d have to call them masterpieces really …
And if Mendelssohn’s achievement wasn’t of the very highest order, so what? It’s a club of four, right – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms? (And even if you want to add a second tier that excludes him – say with Haydn, Schubert and whoever you’re having yourself – be my guest.) Why all the anxiety? Do we worry about reading Heine because he wasn’t quite Goethe?
But aesthetics is a minefield – I sensed that right away. How else do you explain the fact that “gentleness” can be considered an insult? Isn’t is strange that calling music gentle should be historically dubious? Especially when Mendelssohn’s music is surely exactly that (although how should I prove it)? And I don’t mean gentility here – I’m not thinking about Mendelssohn with his top hat. I mean gentle in the simple sense of being not rough or violent.
But once hateful minds started portraying Jewish culture as effeminate in an attempt to sideline it, things got impossibly complicated. How far-reaching racial hatred is, when I can’t even sit down in my office and listen to gentle music and be sure it is truly gentle. If there was only some way of extracting every drop of racial hatred from the music’s reception history and isolating the music alone, I am confident we could hear Mendelssohn’s music as gentle. And prize the same virtue in the composer that you would prize in a friend.
Of course, “gentleness” is not even a particularly big or uncertain concept when set alongside something like “good”. A minefield.
Before, I felt no need to account for my preferences. I was merely an amateur listener. And loving Mendelssohn above all other composers might seem endearingly off-centre in an amateur. But now that I had crossed over onto the boggy ground of aesthetics, I rolled up my trouser legs and waded in.
I started by reading a fat biography of Mendelssohn during my lunchbreaks. It inspired me to seek out some lesser-known gems like the cello sonatas, the cantatas and some of his organ music.
I ordered all these online and had them sent to my office. In fact, so many personal packages came to the office that some of my colleagues began to suspect they contained dubious material. It became a big joke around the workshop, and “listening to Mendelssohn” became a euphemism for masturbation, with lots of inventive variations.
I also started to travel to concerts in secret. Apart from the oratorios, it’s not that easy to hear Mendelssohn’s work live. Naturally enough, one of the best places is Leipzig, and we had a big customer there. So whenever one of our machines was due a service in Leipzig, I would go myself and try to schedule the trip around the Gewandhaus orchestra’s programme. Because I was now chief engineer, this was usually easy enough to organise. The performances were excellent, and it was thrilling to hear Mendelssohn’s music played in the very place where he was kapellmeister for so many years.
And it wasn’t just Leipzig. Whenever a major orchestra programmed some Mendelssohn, off I went. There was something poetic about travelling Germany by train according to the vagaries of Mendelssohn appreciation. I usually read some Mendelssohn-related literature on the way – his letters, for example, but also scholarly studies of the music, which were becoming more accessible to me over time. I also read about things that formed part of Mendelssohn’s world, to understand his mindset better – Goethe, Shakespeare, the biographies of Robert and Clara Schumann, a book about his grandfather Moses Mendelssohn. What a big tree had grown from the small seed that Aine had planted – that the melancholy Frenchman had planted.
On the way back from concerts, instead of reading I would let the countryside roll by – the slopes and vineyards of the Rhine valley, the plains and windmills of the north, the forested uplands at the heart of the country – and let the fresh memory of Mendelssohn’s music (as resonating in my mind from the evening before) reenchant the landscape.
Usually the Mendelssohn piece was paired with music from another composer or two, and the whole experience continued my musical education free from Sabine’s constraining influence. When I arrived in a city with time to spare, I sought out landmarks from music history. I visited Mendelssohn’s grave in Berlin, his birthplace in Hamburg, and sites associated with Bach, Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms all over the country.
Born a West German, I was in my late teens when the Wall fell. So I grew up in the expectation that Germany would remain divided for my lifetime and well beyond. That added a layer of delight to my crisscrossing of Germany by train and experiencing the full breadth of its musical heritage.
The more trips I made, the more I became convinced that contemplating landscapes and listening to abstract music are uniquely complementary activities. Add a little locomotion and you have a perfect blend.
I usually conducted these pilgrimages under the cover of genuine work trips, but occassionally I just told Sabine I had to visit a customer late in the evening (if the concert was close enough to Augsburg) or on a Saturday. On the rare occasions she questioned why the work had to be done at the weekend, I started talking about downtime and scheduling and the intricacies of thermoforming. Most effective of all were dies – for some reason, there’s nothing like a die for bludgeoning the imagination of someone who is not technical-minded. Whenever I wanted to avoid talking to someone – and looking back now on my life, this was probably more often than I tried to communicate with people – I would start on about dies. Anyway, by the time I was finished, Sabine was not only satisfied I was telling the truth but was eager for me to be gone.
I don’t want to exaggerate the extent of these trips. I went maybe four times a year and stayed for one night maximum. Also, Sarah was four when the trips started, so the girls were no longer such a handful. In fact, it was just reaching the point where Sabine was struggling to fill her days, and she didn’t need much help from me. As before, what she really needed from me was to keep doing well at work.
Accordingly, the only time I felt guilty was the one time I skipped work to catch a concert. It was all the way up in Bad Doberan on the Baltic coast, where Felix had visited with his dad as a fifteen year old. Irresistibly, it was a very rare performance of the string symphonies. The concert was on a Friday and we didn’t have clients anywhere near the Baltic. So I used up one of my holiday days and felt guilty for the whole trip.
Twice a year when planning the girls’ birthdays, Sabine and I went through a charade. She would ask for my input on presents and party ideas, which she would then dismiss. After many weeks of this kind of pseudo-discussion, she would settle on what she thought was best. Through trial and error over the years, I knew that I was expected to engage fully in the process. Having already played this exact role with my boss for years, I had good practice. It was more complicated than just being a sounding board; you needed the imagination and energy to come up with many passably intelligent wrong answers.
Of course, it’s exhausting, and there’s the constant danger of tuning out and exposing the sham. That’s precisely what happened when planning Julia’s tenth birthday, and Sabine didn’t like it one bit.
“Your daughter’s birthday,” she snapped. “Can’t you muster some interest for that?”
But I was interested – that was the thing. It’s just that I knew I had no say and that the things she was showing me now on the computer probably wouldn’t be the things we ended up buying. Although in fairness to Sabine, I wasn’t as interested as her – she was right about that. “I was distracted, that’s all,” I said.
“Well, you shouldn’t be. This stuff matters.”
“You’re right, I’m sorry.” These magic words had gotten me out of hundreds of conflicts over the years, but I could see from Sabine’s scowl that they weren’t going to cut it this time. “The last one sounded good,” I added. “You can put that on the shortlist.”
“What was it?” asked Sabine, slamming the laptop shut.
“The book,” I said.
“It wasn’t a book,” she screamed.
“I’m sorry. Let’s do this a different time.”
“You just want me to do it all. Admit it.”
This was going wrong fast. She did want to do it all on her own, but we had gone through this pretence too often for me to say so now. Was it possible that she didn’t know it was a sham? Or that she had changed and now wanted something else? Both these prospects were terrifying. I had to find an exit from the conversation quick.
“Excuse me, darling,” I said. “I have to go to the toilet.”
Sabine threw her hands up in the air. It was terrible – she saw right through me and didn’t care.
“I really do,” I said.
So off I went and locked the door behind me. Two minutes later, Sabine rapped on the door. “Finished yet?”
“I need a while,” I said. “I haven’t been eating enough fruit lately.”
“My darling treasure,” said Sabine softly, “we’re so distant from each other. You do understand that, don’t you? Sometimes I feel like I hardly know you.”
We were living apart by the end of the month. Sabine went about the separation with the same brisk determination she had gone about marrying me and starting a family. I didn’t want to separate, but what could I do? It seemed to me that I could do anything for my family except what she now expected of me. My mind went back to that attritional meal in the Japanese restaurant and how hard I tried to speak.
And deep down I just couldn’t imagine that Sabine seriously wanted more emotional closeness to me. “Come on!” I wanted to say to her. “Do you really want me to start sticking my nose into your business? Do you really want to know what I think and feel?”
A bad period followed the separation. I kept seeking ways to be with Sabine and the girls, but Sabine wanted space, to make a clean break initially, and said the girls needed time to adjust too.
There are not many rental apartments in our neighbourhood, and there were no one- or two-beds on the market when I looked. The nearest thing I could find was a poorly maintained bedsit a twenty minute walk away. (“The oven doesn’t work,” said the landlord. “But who has time for cakes nowadays?”) I rented it anyway – just to be as close as I could.
When I did see Sabine and the girls, I didn’t know what to say. All my communication with them, it turned out, had been centred on the business of family life in our home. Now that I showed up as a guest, what was there really to talk about? When I asked the girls about school or their music lessons, it just made them uncomfortable.
Sabine was happy for me to come over to organise the logistics of the break-up – after all, there was no hurt as such on her side. Unless she had somehow found out about my trips. But it was impossible really – work was such a good cover, and I was always careful to destroy the concert ticket stubs before I boarded the train home. Anyway, once we had finished discussing the practicalities of our separation, I would hang around for a few minutes, and Sabine and I would say nothing to each other. I would wait for her to unfold her arms, open out her palms and say something like: “Stay. You don’t have to say anything. Just stay.” At least, that’s the only explanation for why I hung around in the embarrassing silence. “Does anything need fixing?” I asked her once. That roused her from her equanimity. “I need more than a handyman,” she roared.
A few months later, I saw Sabine walking into our apartment building arm-in-arm with a well-dressed bald man. Handsome, I thought, from my vantage in a cafe window on the other side of the road.
I found it hard to concentrate at work and had long evenings to fill. Falling back on my response to loneliness in Cork as a young man, I went on long walks. Each time, I circled past our old apartment and glanced up at the windows. Once I saw Sabine on the street with the bald man, although this time they weren’t touching. I made sure they didn’t see me.
When Sabine filed for divorce, I had a breakdown. It wasn’t anything dramatic – just random crying and an inability to work. My boss was of the opinion that one breakdown was inevitable for anyone who had worked hard all their lives. A badge of honour, he called it. For the first time ever, he had read me completely wrong. Maybe he was losing his grip on things a little? Or maybe he had always been full of shit? Get away, he advised me. Far away. “Have you been to Norway?” he said.
I thought about going to Leipzig. I’ve always enjoyed the warmth of the people in the old GDR. A couple of weeks in the city that nurtured the careers of Bach and Mendelssohn would be nice, and I could explore the Saxon countryside while I was at it. The only problem was that I had lost much of my appetite for music – and for Mendelssohn’s in particular – from the moment Sabine started talking about emotional distance. Maybe it was only because of the emotional turmoil, I told myself. But I was haunted by a much darker thought: had I made the mistake of basing my thoughts and behaviour – my life, in other words, including my family life – on aesthetic ideas. Had I drifted by stages into that catastrophic error?
All kinds of doubts crept into my Mendelssohn appreciation now that I suspected my musical judgement might have had real consequences for me. When I read his letters, I got impatient at the self-possessed fussy tone. I began to wish for fewer scherzos and more variety in his third movements. Even the octet wasn’t immune to this change in me: when I listened to it now, I would fast-forward some of the first movement’s exposition repeat. And the more I had come to comprehend Brahms’s great achievement, the more fractured and partial Mendelssohn’s seemed (although of course if Brahms had died at the age of 38 like Mendelssohn, we wouldn’t even have one finished symphony from him). The more I reassessed my life in general – not so much to see where I went wrong, but as a psychic response to pain – the more I questioned my musical taste. Why did I like Mendelssohn and Brahms so much more than all other composers? These industrious men, these tidy minds, these synthesizers and organisers, these lovers of structure and understanders of heritage. Couldn’t I have left aesthetics to the experts and accepted that a love of Mendelssohn and Brahms is simply what one would expect of someone with my background and an amateur interest in music? Wouldn’t music like the German Requiem and the ‘Reformation’ symphony be beacons for a lonely German engineer’s soul, lighting the way home?
In the end, I went to Cork. Went back as a man; as a managing director of one of the most successful businesses in Augsburg; as an emotional wreck. Accustomed to thinking of my time in Cork as a student as full of isolation and silence, I was not prepared for the bombardment of talk that awaited me. People would not shut up – hotel receptionists, taxi drivers, strangers in the street. There was lots of goodwill, but also lots of people eager to blame me for their country’s debts. Angela Merkel is not popular in Ireland, I quickly discovered, but when pushed on it people can’t really articulate why. Spiky as a I was in the wake of the divorce – like a broken bottle – I pushed them on it: “Why should German taxpayers pay for your banks’ debt?” I would say. Or: “Are your wages really competitive? What do you earn, for example? Really, that much, for your job, in a bankrupt country?” Or: “If you’d had someone like Angela Merkel as taoiseach, you wouldn’t have got into the mess in the first place.”
The nastiness was like a physical reaction to pain – as if ethics and morality had nothing got to do with anything. I was like a slashed tyre letting all its putrid air out. All the pent-up anger that I felt towards Sabine and myself – and, perversely, towards Felix Mendelssohn – rushed out at Irish strangers who wanted to talk to me about Angela Merkel and bondholders.
After a few days in Cork City, I set out for Beara, where Aine was from. I became that melancholy Frenchman, staying in B&Bs and moping around. I couldn’t remember the name of the village she came from, but I had a lot of time in my hands, so I hiked round the peninsula. The solitude was very agreeable. I walked all day and ate big dinners in the evening.
B&Bs are an excellent solution to the problem of travelling alone. A little bit of family warmth at the start and end of the day is enough to sustain anyone. Also, after all these years I finally found out what a hot press was, even if no one could satisfactorily explain to me why you needed all that space to dry towels.
As I wandered around, I sometimes imagined what it would be like to meet Aine. Who knows, maybe she had moved home and started a family here? Maybe she and her great love Francis ran a farm or a B&B. But believe me when I say I wasn’t holding a torch for her. (Hold a torch? Is that the right idiom?) If I bumped into her and, say, we had a coffee together, the only thing I’d be looking for – essentially, I mean – would be an insight into why my life went wrong. Clearly it was just as well for her that we didn’t meet. Imagine some inarticulate, emotional wreck of a guy you’d slept with two decades ago showing up in your remote corner of the world and looking for the answer to that.
When I reached the tip of the peninsula, I decided to take the cable car to Dursey Island. While waiting for it to arrive, I read the sign erected to the memory of four Luftwaffe pilots who died when their plane crashed nearby in 1943 (although, as I realised while contemplating the sign, it’s probably more accurate to say that it was erected to the memory of the crash). A Junkers Ju 88 it was – an aircraft I could picture in my mind from the models I had made of it a child. I shared the cable car with a young couple who cuddled and took selfies.
When we dismounted on the island, I climbed to the top of its hill and looked down the other side on the land sloping off to sea and the little huddle of stone walls and houses at the bottom. The shadows of clouds swooped over the ground. I climbed higher to the cliffs on the western edge. Lying down on my belly, I stretched my neck over the sea below. And it all did my Romantic German heart good. In my rucksack I had a thick pullover and an anorak along with a good supply of pumpernickel and Maasdam sourced from a Lidl in Clonakilty. It was hours before the last cable car went back. Time to be still for a while.
There is something about Ireland, it seems, that brings out the German in me. Having reached the edge of Europe, looking over the Atlantic, I did not think about Ireland on this side or the Americas on the other. No, my thoughts went back to the centre of Europe, the heart of Germany.
I am on a steam train in the Harz mountains. My family is with me. Julia is six and Sarah four. They’re standing on the open platform between carriages with Sabine, who is holding them by the hand. The wind is tossing their hair about. I’m sitting inside the carriage minding our bags and seats. Everything reeks deliciously of smoke. Spruce trees fan out for miles as the train labours up the mountain.
Coming to the Harz was my idea. I had to fight to have my way, but it was worth it. Sabine had been lukewarm about taking the steam train too. Now I could tell that she loved it. What did it matter if she ever admitted it?
She is wearing figure-hugging jeans and a loose blouse. Her blonde hair streams back from her face, and her cheeks are red from the wind. The girls laugh as they pick charcoal from their hair and are hit by sprays of recondensing water.
The narrow-gauge track leads up the Brocken, the tallest mountain in northern Germany and the location of the Walpurgis Night scene in Faust – the most famous in all of German literature. According to legend, this was where witches congregated every year to sweep away the last remaining snows of winter.
I take out my MP3 player and switch on Mendelssohn’s octet. The sixteen year old Felix hadn’t been to the Brocken when he wrote the piece, but he was inspired by the scene in Goethe’s poem. Although I can only hear the music intermittently over the chugging of the engine and the rattling of the carriage, its puckish whisper in my ear is enough to make everything perfect.
Above the tree line, blooming heather carpets the ground. Hikers stop to take photos of the train as it passes. Sarah waves at them and they wave back. Spotting an old border checkpoint in the distance, I catch Julia’s eye and point to it. Earlier in the day I had been explaining to her what it felt like for West Germans to climb the Brocken after the Wall fell; for this emblematic site to belong to us all again; for the country to be whole again – as much as it can be.
I have timed the octet to be over just as we reach the top. The music skips and bounds to its conclusion accompanied by whistle blasts. The locomotive draws us upwards and my heart is full. I miss it all so much.