It had lain in its case, on top of the CDs, since I moved here last April. Occasionally, I would pick it up and blow the dust off the black cloth case, but never open it, even though I longed to.
You see, two of my flatmates are professional musicians. A flautist and a pianist.
Yesterday morning, when I got up, I put the black case on my bed, in full view. In the afternoon, I sat watching streams of golden light peering through the dark, purple-grey skies, bathing the oak tree outside my window. Its leaves have recently turned into quivering jewels of ochre tipped with sienna, terracotta, glowing like gold leaf stencils in the soft autumn sunlight.
I looked at the black rectangle on my bed. It was time.
I pulled the velcro apart, spread open the flaps, and slid the three wooden sections out of their pockets. I squirted a small amount of almond oil on a cloth, and gently rubbed all three sections with it. Then I poured some on the long, round-edged brush and oiled the hollow centre. The wood looked glossy, revived. Then I opened the small jar of grease, scooped out a generous dollop with my finger, and applied it to the cork coating on the tenons. I joined the three sections together in a slow, twisting motion, until they were snug. I checked that the mouthpiece was aligned with the top holes in the middle section. The third section, I turned slightly off centre, so that the pad of little finger of my right hand could land straight on the two bottom holes.
I inhaled the comforting scent of the wood. Pear wood. As always, the deeply-buried pagan part of me, perhaps handed down by my Cornish grandmother, thanked the anonymous tree that, however many years ago, had yielded a part of itself for unknown German craftsmen to carve this magnificent instrument. I thanked them, too, for their skillful workmanship.
I spread my fingers, so the pads covered all the holes, then listened, holding my breath. No sound from the house. I hoped my flatmates were out. No musical ear could have tolerated, unoffended, the unskilled sounds I was about to produce. I raised the labium to my lips and blew a slow, shallow breath. The note was split, wobbly and strident. Funny how musical instruments tease and throw tantrums when they know they are not in expert hands.
I blew more firmly. E, F, G… a discordant sound spoilt the sequence. I had forgotten the alto recorder requires that quirky finger movement to produce the A. Start again. My scales sounded more like a late night pub song than the authoritative primary colours of music. Once more. And again. Eventually, I managed a steady, smooth sequence, although my fingers were stiff through lack of exercise. I paused to catch my breath. My lungs, too, were out of practice.
I had to take the leap. I took a deep breath, and appealed to what I had left of muscle memory, from months ago…
It was on the fifth of August
The weather fair and mild
Unto Brigg Fair I did repair
For a love I was inclined
In the absence of practice, the tips of middle and ring fingers of my right hand had gone back to crossing over each other, instead of landing straight over the holes. A teenager’s sacrifice to her love of writing. When I was fourteen, I broke my right hand. The metacarpal bone snapped and slid apart, forming a painful dome on back of my hand. At the hospital, they pulled my middle finger out hard (they probably thought anaesthetic was for wimps) and stretched it over a metal splint, before binding my hand in plastercast. They told me not to use my hand for a month. My teachers let me off all writing tasks. I followed the doctor’s instructions to the letter. Well, almost. I could not bear not to be able to write my stories. So, at night, I would unstick the tape that secured my middle finger to the metal support and, despite the pain, curled it around my fountain pen, and traced slow, hesitant letters on my notebook pages. When I had finished – or the pain became to sharp – I secured my finger back onto the splint. When, at the end of the month, they removed the plaster, they noticed that my fingers had become crooked. They simply noted that down on my file, and let me go home.
I got up with the lark in the morning
And my heart was full of glee
Expecting there to meet my dear
Long time I’d wished to see
The soft notes filled my room, and seeped through my skin. They reached deep into me, like a balm. I felt as though my body was singing in tune with the recorder; as though every muscle, nerve and cell was at peace with itself and the world.
I looked over my left shoulder
To see what I might see
And there I spied my own true love
Come a-tripping down to me
I have always loved that song. A folk song from Linconshire, but which always evokes my beloved East Anglia. A song of flatlands where the horizon is at your feet, of Fens, and skies so low you can almost touch them. A song of elm trees lining a river, and of academic spires reaching up high.
I took hold of her lily-white hand
And merrily sang my heart
For now we are together
We never more shall part
* * *
This evening, I knocked on the door of my musician neighbours. I apologised in advance for any outrage to their ears. “I really want to learn to play this properly,” I said. “Do you mind if I practise a few minutes every day?”
They replied with beaming smiles. They would not let me go back into my room until I had played something. In for a penny, in for a pound. They would hear me, sooner or later. I might as well get over the embarrassment now. So I played I verse of Brigg Fair. They still encouraged me after that. Their kindness inspired me even more.
Back in my room, I blew more confidently into the labium.
For the green leaves, they will wither
And the roots, they shall decay
Before that I prove false to her
The lass that loves me well