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Updated: Jan 31
SONATA FORM CHAPTER 1
The movement of the silver pointer was smooth and inexorable. At the appointed hour, the insistent clamour of the alarm clock ejected Brock from sleep. He located the hoop-shaped plastic case and depressed the decorative band on top, convinced it would quell the infernal noise, only to discover that this action had briefly illuminated the dial. Realising his mistake, he found the toggle switch at the side, and the racket subsided.
To be roused in this unnatural fashion felt disconcerting, and the prospect of embarking upon the journey at such an unearthly hour was already losing its appeal. Since taking the sabbatical, a decision motivated in part by the fact he was fast approaching his fortieth birthday, there’d been no reason for him to rise while it was still dark. The comforting thought he might remain in bed and end up deliberately missing the booked train was an option he contemplated for a few minutes, but the more he thought about it the more it struck him that aborting this journey would be wasteful in the extreme: the tickets and the money he’d already paid for the hotel would be effectively thrown away, since it wouldn’t be possible to claim a refund at such short notice. As a viable alternative, it was, therefore, a non-starter.
To be actively considering whether he should cancel the trip showed just how tempting it was to take the path of least resistance and allow oneself to succumb to the habitual. At his age, it was easy to fall into a rut, to travel mechanically and blindly onwards, like the locomotive he was about to catch. Freeing himself, albeit temporarily, from the shackles of employment at least afforded him time to think and reassess the direction of his life. The only drawback was to allow one’s thoughts to become so fixated by the galloping approach of death that the mere idea of an imminent cessation of existence left one paralysed, in the manner of prey incapacitated by a spider. Even if one factored in an additional forty years, which would be on average what remained to him, it was hardly reassuring.
In the circumstances, he mused, whatever course of action we pursue is ultimately insignificant, as the laws of the universe have already mapped out what is about to happen. Fundamentally, whatever might transpire in the future will be shaped by events taking place right now in the present. As far as notions of human decision-making and agency are concerned, if we take the time to examine them, we soon discover they are demonstrably false and of no use to us in our current predicament. For, despite operating under the mistaken belief we have a choice in the matter, are we not simply privileged bystanders, watching impotently as our lives unfold in a predetermined manner? Indeed, wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that man is nothing more than a wretched golem, a creature moulded from clay, animated by external forces which he can neither control nor comprehend?
What on earth was he thinking, setting the alarm for five o’clock, a full two hours before the train was due to depart? Launching himself out of bed, he made for the bathroom. As a result of this simple decision, the day’s events were ultimately set in motion and could no longer be held back, no more than the quantum fluctuations at the beginning of the inflationary period of the universe could return to their initial state of quiescence. To speak of this moment in such terms was perhaps overly dramatic. Yet from now on, there would be no prevarication, no turning back. An invisible hand had already added the key and time signature to the five parallel lines of the initial treble clef, and the first bar of music was about to be composed.
He would do well not to linger in the bathroom. Because he’d stupidly forgotten to alter it, the central heating wasn’t due to switch on for at least another hour. In any case, everything about this room was cold and uninviting, from the glare of the enamel coating on the cast-iron bath, to the stainless steel shower attachment, right down to the white mosaic floor tiles.
As he wiped the layer of condensation from the shaving mirror, he could see through the sash window the full moon shamelessly exposing herself as she picked out the glinting shards of bottle glass on the rear wall. It was a dismal sight in his current frame of mind, and another reminder of the extensive renovation work that needed to be undertaken on the property. That window was in urgent need of replacement by a double-glazed unit, ideally one with frosted glass.
He jiggled the clogged head of the safety razor in the basin and applied it again to his stubbly cheeks, a repetitive procedure he had been performing for more than twenty years, with only a slight alteration in the design of the shaving apparatus over that time frame. Today he was using a disposable Gillette twin-blade razor with a green and blue handle made from plastic and rubber. As for the contours of his face, these had imperceptibly changed, together with the hue of the stubble – these days the latter was peppered with what resembled grey iron filings – though his eyebrows remained stubbornly black. Meanwhile, from the airing cupboard, he heard the steady drip of water into the tank.
After the death of both his parents, he’d sold their property and bought this modest two-bedroom Edwardian terraced house close to the town centre. Sometimes he would hear his neighbour’s clattering footsteps on the exposed floorboards in their hallway. Voices, too, carried effortlessly through the party wall: a woman’s voice in particular. Late at night, or in the early hours of the morning, he would occasionally be aware of the sound of whimpering or moaning. To overhear his neighbour in these moments of intimacy, on the verge of reaching orgasm, smacked of voyeurism, even though it wasn’t technically the right word in the circumstances for this act of furtive listening. Maybe, he postulated, female voices were more noticeable in such circumstances because of their higher register. After all, wasn’t there a marked variation in terms of frequency between male and female? Not a huge divergence, admittedly. You might think of it as representing the difference between the range of a violin and a viola.
He pulled the plug, and the water gurgled away, making an obscene sound as it did so. Prufrock had measured out his life with coffee spoons. What about him? Should he measure his remaining years with disposable razors? It seemed an appropriate way to deal with the passage of time: each wet shave a step nearer to oblivion. Yes, maybe he should picture it in those terms.
Mornings – and the days that followed – were often a blur, and he could no longer differentiate one from the other. There’d been a time when he’d eagerly counted down towards the weekend. Now, each day was indistinguishable from the next. Today, though, would be different, and whatever unknown experiences lay ahead, the forthcoming hours no longer filled him with apprehension, but rather a keen sense of anticipation.
Dressing in a leisurely manner, he glanced at the clock, only to find there was over an hour to spare. Rather than order a taxi, he would shake off the last vestiges of sleep by walking to the station. It was less than a mile, and the exercise would do him good. Despite having already checked the contents of the shoulder bag before he went to bed, he did so again, unzipping each compartment, concerned not to leave anything important behind. Replacing the washbag, charger, headphones, A-Z, book, underpants, socks, and shirts, he reached for his wallet and examined the two train tickets for the umpteenth time. His mobile phone, notebook, and pen were already stowed safely inside his jacket pocket.
Since breakfast would be served on board the train, and in an attempt to wake up fully, he contented himself with a cup of strong black filter coffee before he left the house. For, despite the obligatory shave and shower, his energy levels were still depleted, like a battery drained of its charge.
With ample time to spare, he reclined in his favourite armchair and looked out of the bay window over the park, where the streetlamps still shone with the luminosity of white dwarf stars. On the wall inside the alcove of the fireplace was a cheap fine art reproduction in a wooden frame and with a gold finish of Odilon Redon’s pastel of a young woman, Portrait Of Violette Heymann. The artist had captured the niece of the Parisian collector Marcel Kapferer in a pose which seemed to represent a state of reverie as she sat in a chair and gazed over her left shoulder at a display of variegated flowers. Whatever vibrant colours the print may have possessed when it was first manufactured were no longer in evidence, and the intervening years had been unkind, darkening the entire surface to such an extent it was now simply a dingy, foul mess. The frame was perhaps the best thing about the picture. He only kept it for sentimental reasons, since it had once belonged to his mother.
Underneath the barrelled glass roof of the railway station, in a vaulted space as lofty as the nave of a cathedral, Brock waited on the southbound platform. Behind him, near the passenger lounge, stood an upright piano in a mahogany frame, with its brass pedals and ball castors. Positioned against a brick wall, and equipped with a matching stool upholstered in a mustard-coloured fabric, it couldn’t look more out of place. Perhaps because of its uncanny nature and given the fact that the lid was thrown open so invitingly, he sat down briefly and played the famous Tristan chord, whose four notes resonated throughout the station before dying away.
Minutes later, the lead despatcher, clutching a plastic paddle like an oversize table tennis bat, took up position in the middle of the platform. He was ensuring the track ahead was clear and no passengers loitering too close to the platform edge. As the locomotive, with its characteristic sloping driver’s cab, came into the section he alerted the signal box by holding down the grey button connected to the overhead gantry for approximately five seconds. As he did so, Brock watched the crackling blue sparks, like malevolent St. Elmo’s fire, dancing around the pantograph of the advancing locomotive.
From its previous condition of a broken yellow circle, the indicator on each of the coach doors was fully illuminated and passengers alighted. Although the despatch procedure had been initiated, it could always be aborted, even after departure, by the simple expedient of the lead despatcher raising both arms in the air like a soldier offering to surrender to superior forces.
The action of Brock boarding the train and stepping on the pressure pad caused the internal door to slide open with the savagery of a guillotine. When he booked the ticket, he learned someone had reserved his favourite seat, L61. As a rule, he preferred the corner seat because it faced in the direction of travel, but today fate had determined he would have his back to the engine. It was yet another salient reminder, if one were needed, that he had no say in the events which were about to occur.
For the time being, he put his shoulder bag on the floor and adjusted the seat position by pressing the button. He sat back with his head resting on the white antimacassar with its FIRST CLASS legend, stretched out his arms on the two grey plastic armrests, and relaxed against the blue fabric. The facing seat, he noted, was reserved from York.
As a teacher on playground duty might endeavour to attract the attention of a group of recalcitrant pupils and bring them to some sort of order, so the shrill double whistle from the lead despatcher had the desired effect of spurring into action the lethargic travellers and hustling them on board, as well as alerting his deputy at the rear of the train that departure was imminent.
On the oak-effect table, the breakfast settings were in place. A cup stood upside down on each of the four grey place mats, and on the bottom you could read the maker’s name: DUDSON FINE CHINA. Serviettes were also provided, together with white and brown sugar in paper tubes, and clear acrylic beakers for soft drinks. A Customer Service Assistant would soon come round with a trolley containing urns of tea and coffee.
Brock removed the mobile phone from his jacket pocket and placed it on the table in front of him. Unzipping a compartment of the shoulder bag, he took out a pair of folded headphones.
By now, the lead despatcher was checking to see if he had obtained the proceed aspect and whether a green light was showing on the signal gantry. There were perhaps only thirty seconds before departure and everything was as it should be.
From another compartment of the shoulder bag, Brock took out a slim volume. Initially, the idea of reading La Modification by Michel Butor in the original language had appealed to him, not least because the narrator spends the entire duration of the novel on board a train. This work, which first appeared in 1957, was a favourite of his, but he eventually decided that bringing along the paperback edition, reissued by the Éditions de Minuit, was not a sensible idea because his French was admittedly rusty these days and he would therefore have needed the help of his bulky Collins Robert Dictionary, which would have taken up too much room given its size and weight.
It’s true, he could have brought the Simon and Schuster version by Jean Stewart with the title A Change Of Heart, but he’d read that translation and wanted to study the work in the original language. How the title had been rendered still mildly irritated him. As an amateur translator himself, he would have opted for The Modification, or even omitted the definite article altogether – Modification. How was it that this objective, singular French noun had burgeoned into something so florid, so subjective?
After yet another penetrating double blast from the lead despatcher’s whistle, the assistant responded with a single reply and a gloved hand raised in acknowledgment. This resulted in the lead despatcher giving a final whistle and holding the white paddle over his head to signal to the guard at the rear of the train that the station workings were complete.
At the outset of this carefully sequenced procedure the guard would have opened the flap with his T-key in readiness to access the control panel, and it was apparent he had activated the central locking mechanism since Brock could hear the coach doors simultaneously sliding shut with a thump along the full length of the train. The illuminated yellow circles would now be extinguished. Once the guard had given two beeps to the driver by depressing the green signal button, the driver responded by drawing power from the overhead lines before releasing the brake and sending two answering beeps to the guard.
Instead of the Butor novel, Brock had selected a newly purchased book about the German painter and photographer Christian Schad. Im Irisgarten, with its repeated mirror images of a naked young woman with red shoulder-length hair, was one of his favourite paintings of the Neue Sachlichkeit movement, so he wanted to learn more about the artist. This second-hand book was first published in May 1999 in Miesbach, Germany. Its carmine cover featured a detail taken from Maika, the 1929 oil on canvas. Maika, or Maria Spangemacher, was not only Schad’s model but also his girlfriend.
To reach him, this book had itself travelled on a much longer journey than the one he was about to undertake. At the Antiquariat Am Ungererbad in Munich whoever had wrapped it had paid particular attention to protecting it in transit, so that when he opened the Deutsche Post Priority envelope, he found it swathed like a mummy in bubble wrap and pages taken from one of those free newspapers called Hallo München, which served the areas of Aldstadt, Lehel, Maxvorstadt, and Schwabing. Once he had removed these pages, he discovered two pieces of stiff cardboard forming a protective layer around the book.
Brock scrolled through the music on his mobile. Opening out the headphones like a folded pair of spectacles, he plugged them into the miniature socket at the bottom of the device. In the same way that the train was travelling towards its ultimate destination, along rails stretching into the distance, so the music of Mozart’s K550 moved inexorably forward, the groups of notes on each of the staves representing that temporal movement in symbolic fashion. Increasing the volume, he settled back in the seat, immersing himself in the familiar turbulence and dramatic contrasts of the Molto Allegro, complete with exposition repeat, all of it composed in strict sonata form.
Brock is at a major turning point as he approaches his fortieth birthday.
When he accidentally encounters Shannon, a university student half his age, he soon discovers that sexual obsession is the most addictive and dangerous drug of them all.
Locked within the orbit of this complex and mysterious figure, she introduces him to a secretive world of kink and fetishism.
His infatuation with Shannon and her circle of friends rapidly leads to his life spiralling out of control. But are the events he so vividly recounts real, or the product of his overwrought imagination?
Set in Nottingham, Sonata Form is a metafictional novel that explores the uncanny, doppelgängers, déjà vu, and the unreliability of memory.