I was seven when I first went to the haunted violin shop in West End. I didn't know Romanos was haunted. Not then. Well, really, thirty years on I can't even say for sure that it was. Perhaps that assumption was just another "gap filler" between seeing a chunk of the world and being able to understand it.
I remember it was raining that first day and Mother (she was always Mother never Mum) was bustling me along, pretending to share her inadequate white umbrella, shuffling in that half-run-quick-walk way she did when she was in a hurry. "Ladies running," she called it.
I didn't mind getting wet. I still don't, but it made Mother's carefully coiffed and curled hair flatten, sharpening her small elfin face and making tear tracks down her powdered cheeks. Mother's recipe for life was to treat its tough bits like rain puddles, walk around them if possible, if not, wear very high heels and move briskly through, head high, pretending they weren't there. The door to Romanos had a little brass bell at the top so whenever it was opened the quiet tinkle would cause everyone, customers as well as staff, to stop talking and turn to stare. Mother glared them all down then shook off the white umbrella and stood it in a corner near the door. If it had been a dog she would have said, "stay". I wanted to wait with it; disappear into its quiet, utilitarian purpose where it was simply accepted for what it was, however, as always, Mother had other plans. She grabbed me by the upper arm and steered me to the glass-topped counter at the rear of the shop.
"Mr. Romano, please," she said, when one of the eager young people asked if they could help. Straight to the top. I cringed away from her hold. Her fingers were strong from years at the piano and she gripped harder, eyeing me with that brow-pinched "Stand up straight, Emily!" look.
His voice was rumbling and deep, underscored with a rich European heritage. He had long swept back greying hair, maestro style, but wisps of it had escaped, falling haphazardly about his face so he was constantly flicking it back, patting it into place with long, artist's fingers. He was the first man I'd ever seen who wore clear nail lacquer. The nails were immaculate.
"I'd like to arrange violin lessons for my daughter, Emily." Mother indicated me with a downward motion of her head. Slowly he turned huge black headlight eyes on me. I remember being scared. He was so big and said nothing, just stared. Finally he held out his hand. I thought he wanted to shake hands so I reached out. Instead he took my hand in both his and turned it, pulling and wiggling each of my fingers. Finally, with something that could have been satisfaction, he "hrumphed" and released it, dusting his hands together.
"Tuesdays. Four o'clock. We give her trial for three weeks. You will need violin. Come."
He waved his hand airily and walked off expecting us to follow. He led us through a passage into another area. Romanos had three shop fronts, all joined together. This one was darker than the one we'd left. It smelled of old dust and what I now recognise as a cross between rosin, sweat (it was hot in there) and strict discipline. The air was thick with it.
Mr. Romano trailed his fingers along a row of hanging violins. There were two tiers of them all along one wall. He finally paused and took down one from the lower collection. It was smaller than the rest. His deep black eyes took on a dreamy look as he ran his fingers lightly across its surface, cocking his leonine head to listen acutely as he plucked at a couple of the strings, then twiddled with some small knobs at the base, plus one or two of the pegs at the top. Finally he handed it to me with a flourish. I remember taking hold of it at the top as if it was Puss's leftover smelly fish. I looked to Mother for direction, but she was already under his spell. I half expected her to swoon if he played anything. There weren't many people I'd seen who could do that. He went up a grudging notch on my "wow" meter.
"No. Like this." He positioned the instrument on my shoulder, gently bringing my chin onto the moulded black plastic, then pressed down more firmly. He eased my hands away from the violin and stepped away.
"Hold!" he commanded. I pushed my chin down harder into the plastic mould, praying the violin would not slip sideways, imagining the expensive instrument smashing into polished pieces on the floor.
"Is good. Perfect for her." Mr. Romano nodded again, taking the violin back, the hint of satisfaction glimmering brighter, though still below the surface. I felt incredibly pleased with myself, as if I'd passed some test.
They left me there then. Presumably to "settle the terms", as Mother liked to call it when we bought things. We may have looked like money, but when Daddy died he left more debts than assets so Mother was constantly trying to make arrangements to pay things off. Invariably, she'd overcommit and as Peter, my elder brother, used to say, the mad "Payment Shuffle" would begin. I didn't know exactly what that meant then, but, I'll always remember the embarrassment when people with stern voices arrived wanting to see Mother.
I saw the ghost during my second lesson.
I was in the same hot room, or salon, as it was called. All Romanos lessons were given there. I was with Katie, my new teacher. Mr. Romano had lost patience with me during my first lesson and huffed off realising I wasn't going to be a prodigy.
Katie was one of the young people I'd seen in the shop on the first day. Like the others who worked there she was a student at the Conservatorium. I worshipped her because Mr. Romano intimidated me, and despite her kind, soft voice Katie always stood up for me. She could see my potential, "shining like a beacon". I don't think I could have continued if not for Katie.
"I just have to speak to Mr. Romano for a minute, Emily, honey. Just practise those couple of bars for a sec and I'll be back, all right?" Katie said.
I nodded, sawing the unwieldy bow, chasing elusive notes that sounded like that tomcat on the fence at home, howling mournfully at Puss.
"Does your tongue play an important part in this piece?"
I stopped abruptly and spun around. A young man with short brown hair and a wide smile leant against the wall, his arms folded. He had very blue eyes. I remember they twinkled with a kind of inner light.
"What?" It sounded rude, but then he'd started it.
I was self-conscious about my tongue because it would sneak out the corner of my mouth whenever I concentrated too hard.
The man was wearing a scuffed leather apron that went from his chest to his knees. I couldn't read the faded gold letters spread across a large open pocket at the bottom. When he came close I recognised the smell of wood shavings and hard work—the same as the men doing renovations at school.
"Are you a carpenter?"
He chuckled, his face beaming with mischief.
"Almost. I am a luthier. I make violins," he waved his arm at the rows behind him.
He shrugged in the same way Mr. Romano did, opening his hands and moving his eyebrows like hairy caterpillars.
"Now try holding your left hand a little higher, like this." He held up his own hand and I tried to copy it. I felt my tongue slide out again as I hesitantly began to play.
"That's much better, Em," Katie said bustling back.
"Oh, this man showed me how..."
Benny came regularly after that, but never when anyone else was around. After the first couple of times I quickly learned not to mention him, as Katie put it all down to my "incredible" imagination.
As I improved Mr. Romano had begun to take part of my lesson, showing me a new technique or demonstrating a more difficult phrase. I was never sure whether he did this to show me, or to show off. One day I summoned up my courage and asked him about Benny.
"Where does Benny work?"
Mr. Romano was beside me, sway-playing to himself with his eyes closed. I repeated the question and he stopped abruptly.
"What?" "Benny. The man who makes the violins. Where about's does he work?"
Mr. Romano's face drained of colour.
"I don't know what you mean. I am feeling tired now. We will finish early today."
"Enough!" Mr. Romano stormed from the room.
Benny avoided any question that didn't relate to violins, or technique.
"Where do you live?" I would ask.
"Not far. I have a little room next to my workshop. Like Guipetto in Pinocchio. Have you read it?"
"Can I see it?"
"What? Pinocchio?" he answered innocently.
"Noooo, your workshop. No one ever sees you here except me. Are you sure you're real? I think, you're a ghost." I said with a rush.
"A ghost?" he scoffed, slapping his chest, "do I look dead?"
"Why is Mr. Romano scared of you?"
Benny's face became thoughtful, finally he said quietly, "He's not scared of me. It's just that some people miss their chance, little Em, they see the bus coming and hold off catching it, thinking another one will be along afterwards. It doesn't always happen. Mr. Romano is a good teacher who would have once been a great performer. Now what was I telling you about? Ah, the 'G', see how this makes it a much cleaner sound all round? Now, play with me."
I loved it when we played together. No matter how bad I was on my own, together we sounded like water falling over rocks, the music just flowing and blending between us. He even came with me sometimes when I had an important concert. It was easier when he was there.
I read books about ghosts, just in case. Mother would have had a fit, but I sneaked them home inside others and read them under the bed covers with a torch from the kitchen drawer. I had to stop though because they made me scared.
Benny was so passionate—about violins, playing, and life. How could he be dead? I passed all my exams with the help of Benny, though Mr. Romano took all the credit, preening himself in front of Mother.
I'd insisted early on that if she wanted me to learn violin then she must pay for my lessons before anything else. She'd seemed surprised, but agreed cautiously, as if sensing something changing between us. I think she was pleased as she could continue to pretend, to Mr. Romano at least, that we were rich, though she would still insist on getting terms for my new violins.
I was 16 the last time I saw Benny at Mr. Romano's. I was practising on my own. Katie had left for England the previous year. I only came now out of habit. I felt comfortable practising in this room.
I stopped playing immediately. He had never called me by my full name, always Em.
"What is it?" He looked down at his scuffed shoes. "I won't be able to see you for a little while."
"Why not? Where are you going?"
He shook his head, "Not me. You. Please don't ask questions, Emily. He will be coming back soon. When he does ask him for that violin, hanging there, do you see it? Ask him to give it to you." I followed his pointing finger to the instrument hanging on the wall. It looked battered and unloved. Amidst all the shiny new stock it was definitely the runt of the litter.
"But I don't have enough money..."
"Ask him. Promise me. Tell him...tell him that Benny says it's time."
"I don't understand. Where are you going?"
"Not far. Em, remember what I said about catching the bus? Well, yours is coming and ours—mine—is leaving, all right? However, if ever you need me, I mean really need me, use this violin. I will do my best to come to you."
Then he walked out and Mr. Romano came straight in. Just like that. No good-byes, no explanation. Mr. Romano looked tired these days and was always grumpy.
"What is it, Emily?" he asked.
I hadn't mentioned Benny since that first time. I gulped it out anyway, "Benny said to give me that violin there." I pointed to the ugly duckling.
He seemed to stagger a little, touching his chest with one of those long fingered hands.
"What did you say?"
"Benny. I don't know what it means. He just said that it was time and that you should give me that old battered violin there."
"It was time?" he repeated, he sounded both scared and sort of relieved.
I nodded. Mr. Romano reached out his hand and took down the instrument as if he'd never seen a violin before. He cradled it in both hands and after a moments hesitation held it out to me. I took it. There were deep score marks across the old polished wood. Seeing it up close it looked like a piece of flotsam from some musical shipwreck.
"You better go now. I'll be closing early today," he said quietly, patting me almost fondly on the head. Shrugging I started packing up. As I was leaving he called me back. "You have great talent Emily. Make sure you catch your bus."
Romanos burnt down that night. No one knew why, an electrical fault the papers said. Poor Mr. Romano was caught up in it and died among the violins that he loved.
Someone rapped twice on the dressing room door. It opened immediately. Familiarly. Matty.
"Ten minutes, Em."
I smiled tightly and nodded.
Matty hovered in the doorway, his kind facing creasing.
"So...are you all right?"
I nodded again, more enthusiastically. The door closed slowly, like a fade out in a movie. Tonight would be my first real concert since "the breakdown." Everyone was worried. No one would admit it. Except me. I stood and stretched.
I felt like I needed a drink, yet knew absolutely that I did not. It had been a cocktail of pills and alcohol that had finally brought me undone leaving me bare, alone and horribly exposed. It's strange how it's called a "breakdown", as if we are faulty cars left on the road somewhere, our internal wiring exposed, waiting for AA. "Nerves" Mother called it dismissively. AA (the other one) had been more help than her over the past twelve months. Where pills and booze had been my sledgehammer solution to anxiety for the past thirty years I was gradually learning to replace it with responsibility and acceptance of my own actions.
Frankfurt was still in the wings though. The pre-concert feeling of slow motion panic, the expectant and concerned looks as I just stood there, front of the stage, bow poised above the strings before a capacity crowd in the Opera House. Behind me, orchestra sounds trailed off unevenly like leaves falling from a tree as one by one they stopped playing, realising that something was wrong.
I had to be led off. My arms still held the violin and bow. Poised. Ready.
That was 12 months and two rehabs ago.
My agent was calling this Brisbane concert "my soft re-entry". The sub-text was that if I froze here I may as well pack up my violin case and retire to Bourke. No one would take a chance on me after that.
The dress rehearsal with the full orchestra had gone fine, everyone said so. When I spoke to Dr. Hodges yesterday afternoon "we" were all very confident—Dr. Hodges always referred to "me and he" as an us. Maybe he was right. Maybe that was my problem, I'd always been alone. I said we were tighter than that "an us" and joined the two words together. Doc didn't quite get it, but smiled in that way they must teach at psych college, as if they knew but had the grace not to admit to it, too loudly anyway. I didn't care as long as tonight worked.
In the distance the orchestra was tuning in to itself. Matty would be going out soon. I took a deep breath, then another. My hand hovered over my violin. It gleamed back at me from its case. On a whim I snapped the case shut and slid the other one out from where I'd left it under the table.
A string of psychologists had managed to almost convince me that Benny had been a projection of my own performance anxiety. Yet, if there was anytime that I needed help this was it and I was prepared to use any talisman—even this piece of junk. Maybe. I hadn't even looked at the violin since I'd been given it. On a whim I'd asked Mother to bring it in this afternoon. She'd martyred herself, of course, for the task and I'd chastised myself afterwards for both causing her and me unnecessary stress.
Now it was time and I was actually considering using it. I lifted it out of the case and plucked one of the strings. It sang back true. In tune, how could that be? I tried a quick run with the bow. Perfect. In fact, more than perfect. It sounded like gold. I looked at it more closely, turning it over in my hands. There was a small area of bare wood on the back as if someone had pared away the varnish with a sharp knife.
Another knock at the door.
"5 minutes, Miss McDonald."
"Oh. Thank you."
I went out to wait in the wings realising too late that I still had the old violin in my hand. It didn't matter. It felt and sounded so good.
I hated this part. Before it started.
The first violin excused himself as he squeezed past. There was scattered applause as he cued the tune-in's and took his position. Matty winked as he sidled past. Cheeky bugger. Cute though. With those black curls and single gold earring, he looked like a rakish buccaneer. We seemed to have a thing sparking between us. Maybe it could turn into something more. For the first time I was at least willing to consider that possibility. Having him beside me on the podium certainly made me feel better. His strength was palpable. Yesterday at the rehearsal I drew on it hungrily. I hoped that I wouldn't need it tonight. This was my show, flop or not.
More applause, Matty took his bow.
I didn't want to look to see if Mother was there. She either would be, or not. Peter said he would bring her but Mother had always been unreliable.
Right now I had myself to worry about. Everyone kept telling me I was very brave and that everything would be all right. Why do they say that? How would they know what it's like to stand there in front of thousands of people exposed and alone?
Yet I was more scared not to try because paradoxically I loved performing. Dr. Hodges called it sabotaging oneself.
Now the stage manager was looking anxious. It was time.
I nodded at him, took a ragged breath and stepped out. More applause. I walked to the front of the stage, took a bow and tried to smile, looked down to the fourth row. There they were. Mother was dressed as if she were on the way to an audience with the Queen. She had a queer expression on her face, as if she needed to go to the toilet. No support there—as usual. Peter sat on her left, the side of his deaf ear. He gave me a shy smile.
I allowed my eyes to sweep the room, forcing myself to meet those other eyes, watching and waiting. Matty rapped his baton, the orchestra came in gradually, picking up the score like an animal waking, stretching one languorous limb at a time.
The swell from the orchestra surrounded me, flowing over and through me then out to the audience. I glanced up at Matty, his brow was furrowed, concentrating fully, containing and cajoling the multi-legged behemoth before him, like a mahout with a stick. He flashed me a glance, checking I was ready and managed a quick grin.
I looked ready, but he didn't know I could feel nothing. The paralysis was creeping over me. I wriggled my fingers desperately. They felt stiff and creaky as if they needed oil. It seemed cold on the edge of the stage.
I felt the music building around me, heard my first entry gate coming within it.
Coming. Panic flooded me.
I couldn't do it. It was as if my heart was pumping instant freeze throughout my body. I felt tears of frustration pool behind my eyes. I couldn't even cry. Matty flashed me a glance, mildly concerned. I'd missed the first. It was minor, no one would notice, the next one though was a leap into nothing. Solo. After carrying us all to the edge the orchestra would stop dead and I would have to carry on alone; fly or sink.
Five bars to go. Four, Three.
I shut my eyes and prayed, went back to when I was ten and the Holy was less holey and called on everyone, even Benny.
I saw him when I opened my eyes.
He was sitting in the front row, smiling up at me, blue eyes twinkling, nodding, one leg crossed over the other, upraised foot dancing in time with the beat. I heard him speak as if he were standing beside me.
"Doesn't your tongue play an important part in this piece, Emily?" Immediately I felt warmth and wetness flood my parched mouth. Then he stood, tucking up his old apron as he bent stiffly to retrieve something from under his seat. As he pulled it free I could tell, even from this distance, that it was a magnificent instrument. He fitted it snugly beneath his chin, his eyes locking with mine and climbed the stairs to the stage, one step at a time. As he came closer he seemed to age a little at a time, his hair growing longer, his demeanour more mature.
I felt the music penetrating the numbness, first with a pinprick of sensation near my heart that rapidly flowed out filling me with a fire. I felt the need to dispel the energy, to let the music play me the way it used to, to waltz madly through the sacred fire with Benny and emerge cleansed and whole once more. When the gap in the score came we leaped into the solo void together, slipping and sliding through the frenetic first piece until there was no differentiation between one instrument and the other. I didn't care whether anyone else could see Benny, could hear him playing, standing beside me, eyes fixed to mine, I could and whatever was happening it was working, our violins singing to the same vibration.
When it ended, my dress and hair were a tangled, sweaty mess. My tongue felt sore and incredibly dry. I realised it had been poking out the corner of my mouth, clamped in place between my teeth for the entire performance.
Incredibly the audience was on its feet. Mother was openly crying, while my implacable elder brother was stamping his feet and shouting "Bravo!" over and over again.
What had happened?
Matty was beaming, the whole orchestra was rapping their bows and instruments.
I bowed again. Relief, joy, creative euphoria flooded through me.
I'd done it. No, we had done it. Where was Benny?
Predictably he'd disappeared.
Something was rolling around on the floor just in front of me. I looked closer. A single curl of wood-shaving was rocking on its curved back in the shifting air. I bent down and gently picked it up, cradling it in my cupped palm like a tiny delicate bird. It felt warm as if it had just curled off the plane of a fine instrument still in the making. I opened the shaving out gently, it looked the same size as the bare patch on the back of my violin. I looked closely. Burnt into the varnish of the wood shaving was a name—"Benjamin Romano".