THE UNRAVELLING OF WALTER SINOS - L. Madeleine
It begins with tape hiss, slowly increasing in volume, a magnetic whisper at the edge of hearing. It speaks of an empty noise floor, a room with white walls and bare boards. Then, scarcely perceptible, harp notes: one – rest – two – rest. They are drops of rain, falling onto the roof tiles of a building in Vienna. Beyond them something is rising, distant as thunder.
He was unremarkable, an elderly man in a greatcoat worn to skeleton threads, and a pair of leather shoes that creaked with newness. He wore woollen gloves with the fingertips cut off, threads trailing like capillaries, leaking life. His eyes were yellowed, the irises a shock of blue. When he spoke, it was as if every word were being plucked from a box that was almost empty.
‘The apartment?’ he whispered, nodding to the top of the building, where a sign read ZUR MIETE.
The landlord – a florid man who ruled the second floor – frowned. ‘It’s cold up there,’ he said, ‘and there’s no lift, just stairs, six flights of them, but yes, it’s for rent.’
Shouldn’t you be in an old people’s home, he almost barked, but stopped: the stranger had taken out a brown envelope, fat as a pack of bacon.
‘Six months rent,’ he said. ‘In advance. For your trouble.’ He glanced up at the apartment window once more, before turning away.
A different silence is growing, powerful as bacteria. It is the sound of the space between breaths, held in an old man’s throat. His lungs contain particles of London and Prague, crimson velvet and cabbage steam, diner condensation and diesel from New York, Sydney, Rome. Now, above that aerated silence come the strings, squealing, like a window-frame being shoved upwards. Then the timpani – tonic and dominant on the first and third beats – like two objects falling, hitting the ground, far below.
Stepping out to buy the morning paper, the landlord finds a pair of shoes, discarded on the pavement. He stares; aren’t they the pair that squeaked up six flights on the feet of the old man the day before? How did they come to be here? He glances at the window, but sees nothing.
A shoe in each hand, he puffs all the way up to return them. The door of the attic apartment is locked tight, and there is no answer, only the sound of the window, rattling in its frame. He leaves the shoes on the mat.
He doesn’t see them fall again, half an hour later. He doesn’t see them kicked into the gutter by passers-by, to be crushed by a delivery truck.
Zitternd, trembling… Here comes the greatcoat flying. It holds eighty years of skin in its folds. It was once a vast tent to hide in, while the other children shivered on the army cots. Its pockets gave up surprises: a letter in a foreign language, his papers, an old reed from his father’s clarinet, the safety pin that labelled him all the way to America, name, town, country.
Now it falls, owl-like in the pre-dawn, to land sleeves outstretched upon the pavement.
Reading the newspaper beside his second-story window, the landlord glances down to see an elderly bagwoman in the street. She has stopped to pick something up: an old-fashioned grey coat. He frowns and raps on the glass, but she either doesn’t hear or care, just bundles the garment into one of her many carrier bags and shambles away.
The landlord sits back. If that was his, he’ll freeze, he thinks. Perhaps the old man has another coat. Two days have passed since he moved into the attic apartment with nothing but a large cloth bag and still he hasn’t emerged.
Maybe I should call someone. He opens the hastily put-together contract he persuaded the old man to sign. He can’t make out the name, but in the space for a previous address he deciphers two words:
Fourth comes fast, accelerato, like the heart of someone woken in the night, their body trying to run before they even know what they are fleeing. The strings rise in arpeggios until – ! – a cymbal smashes. The reverberations merge with the sound of chimes: crystal shards, broken forever.
The landlord is woken by the clatter. He groans, thinking it is cats, making free with the bins and rolls over to check the alarm clock. One minute past four o’clock in the morning.
He is drifting back to sleep when another sound breaks the night, louder and more terrible than before. He trips from his bed to pull open the curtains, then the window. The moment he does, something streaks his vision, bright as a falling star.
What follows is a shattering like he has never heard. It is the sound of the irrevocable. It makes the hairs stand up on his arms, makes him feel the old child-fear of having done something wrong. He wants to hide, dive back into bed and bury himself, but he can’t. He is a man, and a landlord, and he must grasp his dressing gown and step out onto the landing. Still, it is frightening to unlock the huge front door downstairs, and peer out, into the uncaring night.
Although the street is silent, when he looks down, he sees the strangest thing. The pavement is glittering with frost. No, not frost; glass, crystal shards, spreading from a point of impact. At the centre, where a crater should be, is a small, engraved plaque:
M. WALTER SINOS
PRIX MUSICA NOVA
‘They’re awards,’ a voice says.
He turns to see a young woman kneeling on the pavement, holding a piece of gold plate. The tenant from the third floor, he realises. She must have been woken too. A large cardigan covers her pyjamas and her hair is mussed from sleep.
‘They’re awards,’ she says again, holding the bit of metal towards him. ‘Someone’s awards, all smashed to pieces. Why would anyone do that?’
The landlord’s gaze flies to the attic and batters against the window. But it is shut tight, the apartment in darkness.
‘He must be mad,’ he murmurs. And makes up his mind to do something about it.
The police arrive before breakfast. They look at the mess on the pavement seriously. A danger, they agree, someone could have been hurt. The landlord does not go with them to the door of the attic apartment. He hides on the stairs, listening and wondering what the police will do when they get no response. But to his amazement, the door opens at once, as if the old man had been standing on the other side, waiting.
The police make their statements and give their reprimands. A voice answers them, soft, so soft that the landlord cannot hear it from his hiding place, however much he strains his ears. After a few minutes, the door closes again.
‘He said he was polishing the awards and left them on the windowsill to dry,’ the police relay briskly. ‘He said a gust of wind must have knocked them off. He has promised to be more careful in future.’
That’s not what happened, the landlord thinks, but he cannot argue with the police.
He returns from grocery shopping some hours later to find the pavement littered with torn certificates.
Night becomes day. The fall reverses its direction, grows wings and soars. The notes are tremolos – polished gems that flicker in time with an insistent melody. It is the sound of a parade, majestic and pompous. It says: this tune is important. You are the first to hear it. You must bear it on your shoulders and carry it down the street and, in time, you will receive your reward.
The next day, the landlord does the only thing he can think of. He emails the Berliner Philharmoniker to ask about the madman in his attic.
The response he receives, less than half an hour later, stuns him. His phone rings, and on the other end, someone is frantic. ‘You’ve found him!’ a voice says in a shrill Berlin accent. ‘Maestro Sinos has been missing for three weeks, his apartment was found abandoned. He is a treasure – one of the world’s most famous composers. How don’t you know that?’
The landlord glares at the phone. He doesn’t like classical music. ‘Your maestro is quite mad,’ he tells them. ‘Please come and get him.’
They promise to send someone on the next plane.
Who knows how the word gets out. Someone in Berlin messages someone in Vienna, who tells someone in a canteen, who shares it with a staff room. But by noon, they start to arrive. Alone at first, or in pairs and trios, the landlord barely notices them. He hears the quiet murmur of voices and thinks it is people waiting on the pavement for taxis, or for friends.
Until, at ten past three, the entire department of Composition and Electroacoustics from the Vienna Conservatory show up. They stand, blocking the thoroughfare, causing bother with traffic, chattering and squinting up at the attic window.
The landlord is alarmed. He demands to know what they are doing. They don’t look away from rooftop to answer him, they just wipe their eyes and murmur we heard Walter Sinos is up there, as if referring to a deity.
The landlord tries to make them clear the pavement before the front door, to no avail. Instead, the street grows more crowded, because the news has reached the Wiener Staatsoper, and here are the musicians, stopping by on their way to the opera house, banging into everyone with the instruments on their shoulders.
Then, as the church bell tolls five, there is a flash from above: the window opening. Excitement sweeps the crowd. They begin to shout, to cheer, to raise their voices, calling maestro maestro until the word begins to phase and syncopate: tro – maes – tro – maes – tro, and the landlord’s ears ring.
He is about to flee inside when the first sign appears: a ribbon, pale as a benediction, fluttering softly down through the air onto the waiting shoulders.
The crowd goes wild. They jump and whoop as more ribbons fall, streamers of all colours flung out by an unseen hand. The students and professionals, the lecturers and cellists and composers grab them from the air, scoop them from the ground, kiss them and knot them about their wrists in triumph.
Only when one of the streamers curls at the landlord’s feet does he realise what they are: linen and cotton, silk and wool, the old man’s clothes, cut to ribbons.
G melodic minor descending. The sixth is unpredictable. The fine polished gems of the fifth movement drop to the ground, nothing but paper. The great melody seizes them up and begins to tear them to shreds, then to fragments, too many to ever be united. Alone, they are weak. Without Sinos to give them meaning, they blow away like dead leaves.
It grows late. The landlord expects the crowd to disperse, to return to their jobs and student rooms, and some do. But many more remain, glued to the pavement, staring up in reverence. Finally, after hearing one too many strange voices on the stairwell, after intercepting and throwing out one too many flush-faced students trying to make it to the attic, the landlord takes his master key and locks the front door. They will tire, he thinks, peering through the keyhole. They will give up.
He tries to ignore them. He makes dinner, watches television, but he cannot relax. Anyway, the person from the Berlin Philharmoniker may yet arrive and he will need to let them in. That is the thought that keeps him away from the attic door, that stops him from banging on the wood and demanding peace. Sinos is not his problem, not his friend or father. He has never even heard the man’s music.
Reluctantly, he sits at his computer and opens the browser. He puts the television on mute, finds a link to a video – a live concert recording in Prague – and clicks play.
The first notes emerge, ghosts of themselves from the cheap speakers. The landlord sits stiff in his chair as he turns up the volume, allowing the strange, trembling, speaking music to fill the room. His eyes blur, then close.
He doesn’t move, not even when the noise of the crowd outside changes. He doesn’t see the scraps of paper begin to fall, like the first snow on Christmas Eve.
When the music ends, he opens his eyes and stares mutely at the ceiling for a long time before moving to the window. The people are still there, fifty, a hundred faces upturned. Scraps of paper drift down upon them, brushing their cheeks, landing on their collars.
A few of the scraps, no bigger than a fingernail, have collected on the landlord’s sill. He opens the window and picks one out. It is scored with black lines, and with a tiny semi-quaver.
There is a knock at his door. He hurries there, the fragment stuck to his index finger, expecting the stranger from Berlin. Instead, he finds the tenant from the third floor, her eyes bright with emotion, her cupped palms filled with scraps of paper.
‘I caught them as they fell,’ she says. ‘I think they’re his original scores.’
He stares at that record of achievement, torn into non-existence. ‘Someone should be here soon,’ he says.
He hopes they hurry.
Caesura. The melody has worn itself out and shudders into stillness. It is the noise of dry, watchful eyes, shallow breath, the thrum of a nervous system under strain. Finally, a sound: the scrape of just one string, like something being dragged across the floor. Then, with a rush, it snaps.
Dawn finds the vigil-keepers bleary-eyed and stiff with cold and fatigue. It finds television cameras, journalists from Der Neue Merker and Fono Forum, phones held ready to record, to snare the story. It finds the landlord wan from lack of sleep, his eyes fixed on the corner of the road where a taxi will pull up, bringing a stranger from the airport.
This has to stop. He repeats it to himself like a fugue, his breath collecting on the window, this has to stop. The paper notes fell all night, so many that they began to collect in drifts and creep under the front door and he was forced to sweep them away with a broom. In his tired state, he imagined he could hear the notes clanging as he swept; jumbled clefs and staves, a work of art reduced to pieces.
Stop, he begs the ceiling, stop it and come out now, please.
His computer ran all night too, playing every piece by Sinos he could find, until it seemed as if the air was thick with sound, music filling his lungs, collecting on his eyelashes, settling on the bread he tried to eat.
Finally, at 06:58 he can bear it no more. He steps out onto the landing. Music notes tumble from the flat as he walks, spilling down the stairs. When he unlocks the front door, the crowd surge forwards, hopeful that something is about to happen. He looks between the faces, and swallows, clearing the notes from his lips so he can speak.
‘Any sign from up there?’
A young woman in a woollen hat shakes her head. ‘Not since about four.’
A journalist comes shouldering forwards, phone held out. ‘I’m from Kurier. Do you live in this building? Can I ask you a few questions? How long has Mr Sinos been in residence?’
The landlord blinks. His head is swimming with music. ‘Someone is supposed to come from Berlin,’ he mutters, ‘but they’re not here yet.’
‘Will that be part of the performance?’
Performance? The landlord shakes his head, angry without knowing why.
Just as he opens his mouth to answer there’s a noise from above. Every neck snaps upward, in time to see something emerge. Small and brown, trailing green, it arcs like a comet over the heads of the crowd, falling clear of them to smash in the centre of the road, scattering with a hiss.
No one speaks. Nothing else emerges from the attic, and together, they move to look at the object that has fallen. It lies on the cobbles surrounded by a spray of dirt; pale, broken roots, remnants of slender green leaves, tangled with shards of terracotta. The young woman in the hat is the first to break the stillness. She picks up two thick pieces of pottery and carefully fits them together. Words became visible, inked onto the surface.
Vienna, November 1938
‘What is it?’ someone asks.
The landlord knows. November 9th 1938, the night when thousands of people were forced into purgatory, thousands more ultimately murdered. He has heard stories of plants like this one: a fragment of a former life carried across a vast ocean, to grow, to thrive, to be divided and passed on, to be treasured, to be remembered, until the end.
When he looks up at the window once more, he discovers he is crying.
Grand Pause. Lips still, fingers still. Every possible sound is with us here in the silence. We wait. The music will come, though when is up to the players. They will begin only when the pause becomes too heavy to bear. Now – an explosion, four explosions – hammered with a fist. A shower of wooden grace notes, clattering away into quiet.
Listen close: there is one sound left. It is the sound of synapses fading, the hiss of tape over metal, the locking groove of a vinyl record, rolling on and on and on.
This time, when the police climb to the sixth floor, the landlord goes with them. He stands back as they wield their big red key, his shoulders hunched against the blows to come.
Once, twice, thrice, four times, the police officer swings his arms. Then, in a shower of splinters, the door gives way. The landlord finds himself shoving past the officer, rushing into the apartment. His ears are raw from the long night of listening, tuned to the world as they never were before, and he can hear something familiar. It is the undercurrent that runs through all of Sinos’s music: a long, unending hiss.
He hurries through the apartment. It is entirely empty, not a sock or plate or cup to be seen, nothing but white walls and bare boards. He follows the sound into the room that overlooks the pavement.
There, naked as the day he was born, is the lifeless body of Walter Sinos. On the floor beside him a reel-to-reel tape player is running, its red light steady, recording his great, last work.
After a childhood spent acting professionally and training at a theatre school, Laura Madeleine changed her mind, and went to study English Literature at Newnham College, Cambridge. She is the author of four novels, published by Transworld in the UK and by St Martin's Press in the US, the most recent being An Echo of Scandal (September 2019). She is based in Bristol, UK and can be found on Twitter @lauramadeleine or at https://lauramadeleine.com/