RESPITE

 

By JGS

 

 

 

Window to desk to window to desk... back and forth across the floor. By the window he stopped.
He stood staring sightlessly at the ice covering the window-panes: a compact pattern of stars and flowers, barely revealing that there was still some daylight outside.

His left hand picked up a small object from among the white moss on the window-sill; his right joined it, mechanically, jerkily, as if reluctant to leave the coat pocket. He toyed with the old thing aimlessly: a seal stamp, the dull black ebony handle not worn smooth and shiny with use, the brass head matted from lack of polish. If he turned it over, his initials, JGB, would face him with their mirror-image sneer. An extravagant Christmas gift from his parents when he, at sixteen, had become a junior copyist at the bank. They died a few years later. Just as well.

He went to the stove, pressed the seal against its side, then returned to the window and held the hot metal to the window-frost. It left a clear circular opening, a window in the window. A child’s game, a child’s toy – all the seal was good for. He looked through the circle in the frost into the murkier greyish white outside: white on white, dull, unrelieved.

Unrelieved, dull, tedious. Frida would not come today. Christmas was a busy time for musicians. On Christmas Eve, Frida not only assisted the local cantor, keeping the children’s choir in order and playing the small organ in the aisle while he conducted the adults and played the main organ in the gallery. She had even been called to replace the soprano soloist in a neighbouring parish, who had come down with a sore throat.

Too bad. Frida and her music brought him a few moments of peace, a respite from the thoughts churning in his mind. He sometimes wished he could turn down his brain the way you turned down a lamp, subdue and pause the memories, the speculations, the regrets, the ruminations and re-evaluations, the judicial process over himself that he constantly enacted and re-enacted mentally as he paced the floor, back and forth, day after day, year after year.

Today, he had forgotten all about Christmas until the smell reminded him. Stockfish. Dried, then soaked in lye, then soaked in water, set to boil on Christmas Eve morning, the stench spreading and permeating the building... The only Christmas dish they had been able to afford in his childhood. As an adult, he never touched it. The very smell turned his stomach.

 

He returned the seal to the window-sill and resumed his pacing. Back and forth, back and forth, a habit acquired during his years in prison. His hand slipped into his coat pocket, found the familiar scrap of worn silk, felt it, fumbled with it, to the equally familiar rattle of a few coins. Not even a crown all together, that was all that was left of his grand domain, his would-be kingdom. On his return from prison, he had found the purse in a drawer of his desk, black and grey silk, embroidered with his initials, JGB. The coins were so few, they had not been worth confiscating.

He remembered the day the purse was given to him – another Christmas, the last one with Ella by his side and all his grandiose dreams on the brink of turning into real projects, waiting to be set in motion. Ella had stitched and embroidered the gift for him, and there was a genuine smile in her eyes that tempered the ironic tilt of her mouth and eyebrow when she watched him open the package. He gave her... what? Oh, yes, the harp: a silver brooch in the shape of a harp, a feeble pun on his habit of calling her his angel. What a joke. After the collapse, although he had not seen her since the trial, Ella was his guardian angel in a very real sense: but for her, his family would be homeless and very probably even starving.

 

In the old days, he would be in church at this time on Christmas Eve. He was not a religious man, but his position obligated him to attend. The music offered a recompense. The psalms were musically trite, their poetry pompous or maudlin, but on the major holidays there would sometimes be a Bach cantata. The Fifth Evangelist could lift even a trivial psalm to the height of genuine devotion.

He stopped at the piano, raised the lid over the keyboard and ran his finger backwards over the white keys, the fingernail click-clicking against the ivory. Do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do-re-mi-fa... Still standing, he tried to pick out a tune. “Wie soll ich dich empfangen/ Und wie begegn’ ich dir?...” Full of mistakes, the tones coarse, blunt, ugly.
Now he might have the time to learn, but he was old, his fingers stiff, his head too full of memories, doubts, regrets... Besides, she was there, downstairs, listening, keeping track of his every move. If she heard him practising on the piano, slowly, jerkily, ineptly...
He should have learned when he was young...

He closed the piano, shoved his right hand into his coat pocket and gave a mirthless laugh, two coughing syllables. When he was young... What would a piano have been doing in a miner’s home? Even if they had been able to afford one, where would they put it? He and his younger brother slept on the wooden kitchen sofa that unfolded into a bed at night; the rest of the family slept in their only room. They did have another room, but they rented it out to a bank clerk, the one who told John Gabriel that there might be an opening for a junior copyist. Music was no occupation for an able-bodied man, anyway. Old Aksel – not so old, a little over thirty at the time of the accident, but everyone called him that – got a fiddle when he lost his right leg in a gas explosion. All the miners chipped in and he learned to play it well enough after a while. But, if you were healthy in body and mind, you either worked in the mine or left to try your luck in the world. Once John Gabriel obtained a position in the bank and decided to make something of himself – there was only work, work, work. You could always do more, improve your standing, add to your assets. He might miss music, but...

 

What did he think he was doing, standing there, woolgathering? Christmas or not, he had to keep up, gather information, have all his figures up to date when they came for him from the new bank. Only a week till New Year; then they would certainly come. They could not run the bank without him.

He sat down at the desk, opened the newspaper and found the shipping news.
He pored over the page for a while; then he let go of the silk and coins in his pocket, dipped a pen in ink and began copying figures into columns in a ledger.

He wrote slower and slower, fitfully. The third time the pen ran out of ink, instead of dipping it, he went on scratching yet another figure... His left arm slid across the newspaper, his chin sank onto his chest... his fingers let go of the pen... his head dropped lower and lower... until it rested on his outstretched arm on the desktop. As he fell asleep, his right hand found its way back into his coat pocket.

 

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Frida stopped at the crossroads and hesitated. The two stints playing and singing in different churches brought her some money, but she was tired. In the snow up to her ankles, sometimes up to her knees, clutching her music case with both arms against the wind, she was making slow progress. Her parents expected her home for Christmas dinner... her siblings would be there, though, squabbling, quarrelling, berating their father for not being rich... as they always did, but somehow it was worse at Christmas. She thought of the Borkman house, so still and quiet, depressing, really – only today the silence felt like a blessing. Mr. Borkman knew that she was too busy to come and play for him on Christmas Eve, he said he understood. Still, there was something in his eyes... or perhaps in the tone of his voice... or perhaps she only imagined things. But she did think that he had sounded disappointed. In any case, the Borkman house was close by and her parents would think that she had been delayed in the neighbouring parish church. Her mind made up, Frida took the path that would take her to the Borkmans.

 

There were bright lights in the downstairs parlour. Frida knocked at the front door, but nothing happened. The maid must be busy serving Christmas dinner. Gently, quietly, Frida opened the door. Before stepping into the hall, she shook her coat and knocked one boot against the other to get rid of the snow quietly. Through the closed parlour door she discerned no more than two voices: Mrs. Borkman and the student, her son. Frida slipped into the familiar dark corner and through the narrow wallpapered door that led to the back stairs. Careful to avoid the creaking loose steps, she tiptoed up the spiral stairs to the upstairs drawing-room.

Again, there was no answer to her knocking. She pushed the door open and peeked inside. The room was in darkness, only the lamp on Mr. Borkman’s desk illuminated the desktop and the head and arm of the man sprawled across it, asleep.

Frida hesitated. There was peace and quiet in the room; she did not want to intrude on the sleeping man, but it was still early in the evening and he might be pleased to hear her play when he woke up. She took off her coat, folded it and placed it on a chair on top of her music case. Then she sat down on the stool at the piano and raised the lid. She needed no sheet music or light for what she intended to play, familiar tunes for her own enjoyment. Her left foot found the muting pedal and pressed it into its slot. She might wake up Mr. Borkman, but she did not want it to be a crude awakening.

Quietly, quietly she ran through a few introductory chords and began playing “Silent Night”. Without a pause, she continued with some of the Christmas psalms that she had been playing in church earlier that day: “Hil dig, Barn i Krybben lagt”, “Julen har bragt velsignet Bud”, “Vor Jesus kan ej noget Herberg finde”, “Den yndigste Rose er funden”, “I denne søde Juletid”... [1]

She paused, listened, stole a look at the man by the desk. He murmured something, fidgeted briefly, but went on sleeping – his head only shifted to a more comfortable position on his arm.

His deep sleep reminded her of one of her favourite Christmas pieces: an aria from the Christmas oratorio, Virgin Mary’s lullaby for baby Jesus. Frida, a soprano and not truly a professional singer, would never get to perform it in public, but the alto pitch made it easier to sing sotto voce.

Schlafe, mein Liebster, geniesse der Ruh,” she sang, “Wache nach diesem vor aller Gedeihen.”

Mr. Borkman was in no way her “beloved” and might not contribute to anyone’s well-being: his past reputation was quite to the contrary. She still wished him a peaceful rest; anyone could be entitled to that, especially on Christmas Night, and he had never been unkind to her. Sometimes he was silent, sombre and brooding; sometimes he would say encouraging things about her music or mention some little detail from his youth. The piano in his room was excellent, she enjoyed playing it, and she understood that her music granted a rare respite from his oppressive thoughts.

At the reprise she dispensed with the words and only hummed the melody. Then the final chord died down; Frida lowered her hands into her lap and sat looking down at the keyboard, enjoying the silence.

A loud lurching gasp made her start. Quickly she turned her head to look at the man sprawled across the desk – no. The noise had only been the tall dark clock, almost invisible in its shadowy corner, groaning prior to striking the hour. Frida fidgeted, then stood up. She really had to leave; her parents would be worried. Quietly she closed the piano and put her coat on.

Still, she lingered, standing in silence, listening to the breathing of the sleeping man and the ticking of the old clock in the corner. With a vague idea of seeing whether Mr. Borkman was all right, she approached the desk.

She looked down at the man asleep across the desktop, his head resting sideways on his outstretched arm, his wavy grey hair hardly disarrayed at all. Mr. Borkman would wake up with an awfully stiff neck, she thought. He was fast asleep, his breathing deep and slow, occasionally turning into low snores. She raised her hand… An indistinct mumble and a vague movement of his head checked her. Her fingers stopped barely an inch from the bluish black wool of his coat, grown shiny from use and with broken threads sticking out here and there through worn-out seams.

 

Frida pulled back her hand, collected her music case and slipped out of the small wallpapered door. Her winter boots thud-thudded mutedly down the spiral stairs. The front door opened, and clicked shut behind her.

 

 

 

 


(Written for the Rickman Pics and Fics fan group Christmas challenge, December 2010
)



[1] “Hail Thee, O Child In The Manger”, “Christmas Doth Bring A Blessed Word”, “Our Jesus Finds No Shelter”, “The Loveliest Rose Was Found”, “In Sweetest Christmastide”. Salmebog for kirke og hjem / udarbejdet af det kirkelige Raad1897 (Hymn-book for Church and Home, compiled by the Ecclesiastical Council 1897) Apologies for cheating with the time-line a bit. A/N