This installment marks the official beginning of the actual novel, The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben, as Kerr wakes up and isn't quite sure where he is. And we've all had dreams like that...
(If you've only just arrived and have no clue what's going on, you might find it easier to start with the introductory post and begin from the beginning, here.)
"There's no reason to be afraid, really," the gentle voice was saying, prodding me softly with confirmation if not concern as the fog, I saw, began to lift and the light shone through. It had been very dark a moment ago, the darkness inside a tunnel, but I still couldn't see who was speaking.
What was it, I wondered, that frightened me, trying unsuccessfully to concentrate harder;
who was it who'd been talking to me?
"I was just about to wake you up: we're almost there," Cameron said.
Aware my head was leaning against the glass, I looked out the window as swirling patterns of snow began taking shape, the fog starting to break up a little, a pale sunbeam barely visible. Slowly coming to the surface, I looked around and wondered, "where am I?" What had scared me that jolted me awake?
'Jolted' wasn't the word, though; more like 'nudged,' as if it really mattered. I was probably just dreaming before waking up. Isn't this what psychiatrists called a 'fugue state,' that confusion before consciousness returns? Like different musical strands playing against each other, it felt like a fugue, though perhaps a quodlibet might be more accurate.
"True, a fugue implies a precise, procedural logic," I began explaining to myself, "but a quodlibet was more of a free-for-all." This reminded me why students often asked me, "Could you be less specific?"
Putting my inner professor aside for the moment, I started to look around wondering where I was now that I'm awake, or perhaps had been when I was dreaming, before becoming slightly more conscious. Clearly, I was sitting on a moving train on a blustery winter's day but what day that was, I'd no idea.
Cameron Pierce, who was both friend and assistant, sat quietly across from me with his thoughts buried deep in his iPod, his head nodding rhythmically to some pleasant beat (probably not listening to Schoenberg).
My hands were holding an old cloth-bound book of an unappealing faded brown resting comfortably against my stomach, splayed face down. I could no longer recall anything about it, not even the book's title (I usually took some book along with me even when I went shopping in case I'd have a moment to read).
The blanket of snow covering everything visible outside gave it an ominous air as if it could continue snowing for days. Vaguely, now, I remembered something about a blizzard that left our plans unsettled. There was something else besides the weather forecast that was ominous and unsettling but all I wanted to do was sleep.
An indecipherable announcement bleated from the overhead loudspeakers and people started shuffling about. Apparently, wherever we are, they could understand that. Cameron looked up and put his iPod away. Perhaps he understood it, too.
It's a good thing I'm not traveling alone because I'd still be asleep and then miss our stop, whatever it was. Who knows where I might end up, then: probably somewhere north of Glasgow.
"Well, that didn't take very long," Cameron said, handing me both my suitcases as we pulled into a picturesque old station.
The whole process of struggling to stand up forced the fog to recede but not so much to be really helpful. It had seemed a long time to me, like I'd slept for hours. I checked the larger suitcase and was relieved to see my familiar stamp – "T. Richard Kerr" – in heavy old-fashioned Gothic letters.
Then I remembered there was a large man who'd sat next to me carefully holding a viola case to his chest. Cameron said he'd left at the station before, some name I couldn't place.
Hadn't I just told myself something about Glasgow? But that didn't sound right. Why would I want to go to Scotland? I recalled being in Germany the other day, part of some whirlwind vacation...
Just then, a woman leaned forward and handed me a tattered brown book, the one I'd been reading only moments ago.
"Here, sir," she said deferentially, "you've forgotten this: don't leave your book behind!"
Still befuddled, I said "Thanks. You speak English?"
"Yes, of course," she smiled, "we're in England. We tend to do that."
Beside her, the man with the walrusy mustache who reminded me of Elgar muttered some no doubt derogatory comment I missed.
"Okay," I mumbled, turning away, "that explains it." Another nod, another thank you.
Not that it really explained all that much, the fog still swirling around. Perhaps some coffee would provide the necessary jolt.
Yes, but hadn't I been jolted awake before – last night on the plane? There was some turbulence as we approached London. "No reason to be afraid," someone had said, probably coming from the cockpit. Still, I recalled having made copious use of some mal d'air bags then. Hadn't we just left Munich earlier last night?
If we'd only spent one day in London, why did we change plans? Maybe it had to do with this blizzard. That's right, now I remember, not just weather: something else that was scary.
"Please watch your step, sir," the porter said. "Look out for the snow. There'll be plenty more where that came from." Holding on to my elbow, he carefully helped me down off the step.
Perhaps he thought I looked a bit woozy, stumbling headlong up the aisle trying not to hit everyone with my suitcases.
"The agent inside will call you a cab," the porter said to Cameron, winking at him as he nodded toward me. "Around this time of day, he'll usually be at the Dog & Pony."
The Snaffingham Station wasn't much by any account, a suburban out-of-the-way watering hole compensating in charm what it lacked in practicality, though I'd've felt better if it weren't locked, out here in the middle-of-nowhere.
"You blokes Curr and Pierce?" a voice asked, hiding back in the shadows.
"Then I been sent to fetch you."
Things were so much easier before I retired, living on a regular schedule.
In the good old days, I felt useful; now, not nearly as much. What did it matter what day it was, after retiring the appointment book? Every day was the same: really – what schedule?
Yes, in the good old days, after all, things were different, weren't they? They're 'old' days because they were long ago. They're 'good' because I had a purpose then, a reason to wake up.
Now, I feel I'm just 'good and old,' sidelined at a certain age when I should be entering my 'Golden Years.' (What marketing firm came up with that slogan, snagging someone a hefty bonus?) If I entered Middle Age at 40, I'd only make it to 80; if 63's my Golden Section, I'll die 102!
In the good old days, I'd fall asleep staying up late correcting papers, a hard-working young college professor filled with idealism. "Work hard, learn your craft – earn your keep: success'll automatically come your way." Yes, this might be okay, this 'life philosophy,' as far as it went (not that the term 'philosophy' is accurate, here). It's only later that we discover – too late – there are other factors involved, things like politics or the economy, your health. These are the things now that keep me awake at night, these variables.
The best times (or sometimes, the worst times) were having trouble falling asleep after I'd come home late from a concert, better yet when I was playing the concert, a cellist in the orchestra. But even when I was just a listener, excitement often kept me awake, whether from reliving technical issues or emotional ones.
These days, I would fall asleep at night while listening to a recording, dozing off before the ending, missing the climaxes, though still better for my brain than falling asleep to some television show.
There were lively, happy nights spent with friends – students, colleagues, my fellow musicians – those nights we called 'out on the town,' those nights when coming home late would make waking up early a challenge.
Then Sondra, my wife of ten years, died of cancer, which changed everything (a heart attack had hurried up the process).
There was a difference to waking up before, excited about starting the day. I'd wake up already awake, feeling wonderfully alive. I could hardly wait to get to school, to meet my first class. Now, it's like I'm swimming to the surface – slow motion, an unfolding process – considering I always hated swimming, afraid of drowning.
Usually, these days, I'd struggle to open my eyes, look out the window, and try to guess the time of day. But the window was on the wrong side of the room this morning.
"Okay, where the hell am I?" I wondered, in a state of confusion, hoping pieces of an answer started to form but I couldn't even find the fragments of a dream to help me. Is this what they called a fugue state? Maybe that's not the term. In music, fugue comes from the Latin, 'flight.'
I lay there in the semi-darkness before dawn wondering "was I fleeing something" other than the usual recent fears and worries that had long replaced the adventures of youth which were never that adventurous?
"No," I thought, trying to recall (without success) my last thoughts before bedtime, or what I'd been doing before feeling sleepy.
Though dawn felt like it was hours away, it finally dawned on me: not 'flight' as in 'running away from something.' It was 'flight' as in 'on a plane.' But where had I landed?
The door burst open revealing a naked man and I very nearly screamed as I slammed myself into an unexpected wall. I was under sudden attack from evil agents, the police perhaps or terrorists. Through dim light from an even dimmer hallway, I could see someone, dark-haired, in the doorway waving his arms and yelling.
He wasn't yelling anything I could tell about Jihad or 'Death to Musicians,' but the voice, though excited, sounded vaguely familiar.
"Did you sleep through your wake-up call again? Aren't you even up yet?"
Cameron, wearing briefs and toweling his hair dry, tried desperately not to laugh when the phone began ringing, right on cue. I groped about to find the phone if only to stop the racket.
"Sorry, mate, meant to call you 'alf an 'aar ago," the voice mumbled. "'Ere's your wake-up call," and then hung up.
Cameron snapped his towel at me as I hastily clambered out of bed, laughing that we would be late for breakfast.
"No big deal, I'll just grab something later," I said, bleary-minded and mumble-tongued.
"Yeah, but you're the one who agreed to meet LauraLynn for breakfast, remember?"
I couldn't imagine ever doing such a thing.
"Well, you'd better get dressed and hurry up: we haven't got much time. We're supposed to meet them in thirty minutes. You should've come out with us, last night. London's such an incredible place!"
"Right," I continued mumbling as Cameron closed the door behind him and left. "London – yeah, that helps. Okay, I'm in London." I looked through a grimy window into the hotel's even grimier ventilator shaft. Both bed and offending wall were on the opposite side of my bedroom where the window looked into my back yard. I couldn't imagine hanging around with Cameron, out and about in London Town, meeting up with some young chat-friends of his. I'd long ago gotten too old for that but I'm glad he went.
We'd been planning this trip for five months, ever since LauraLynn's invitation arrived, after not seeing her since the previous summer. Plus her fiance Burnson – I kept thinking 'Bronson' – sounded like a great guy. The wedding would take place at his family's house out in the country, the weekend before Christmas, everything sounding so idyllic.
It may not have been record time, but I managed to get dressed and, after Cameron's inspection, not forget anything critical before taking the steps to the lobby (the lift was out of service). I asked the guy at the desk – who couldn't pronounce 'concierge' if his life depended on it – to call a cab.
Waiting in front of the Cheap Bastard Arms, ten minutes later, we saw a dumpy cab driven by a grumpy Arab.
"You blokes Curr and Pierce?"
"More or less."
He nodded at the door.
After I'd given him our destination (more like our goal), he said nothing and continued saying nothing for several more blocks. Once hopelessly stuck in traffic, Cameron said something in Farsi that sounded cheery. The man – his name was Akhmed; he was from Tabriz – never stopped talking. To me, however, he spoke in monosyllabic English.
How small the world was – considering Cameron was, as he called himself, Persian-American – that we'd find an Iranian-born cabdriver in London. Unpleasant at first, our cabby became a different person in his native language. His father had been a professor of poetry, Cameron explained to me later, but then the revolution came – he shrugged philosophically.
Cameron, now a student in Philadelphia, had been named after his uncle Kamran, his father's older brother killed in the revolution. Akhmed, Cameron translated, had an uncle named Kamran who still lived in Tehran.
Hearing the musical strains of their lively conversation, completely incomprehensible as it was, I sighed and gazed out the cab's window at the buildings crawling past, unsuccessfully ignoring the greater speed of my watch. Would they wait for us in the restaurant, assuming there'd been a delay? No doubt they'd still stay and eat breakfast. We'd get there eventually, perhaps not too late, and there was always plenty to see in the area around the restaurant, like Wigmore Hall around the corner, where the Drang Quartet played last night.
It was 25 years since I'd last been in London – a week's vacation – when Rob and I stayed at LauraLynn's flat, a place in the midst of fashionable Chelsea not far from the Thames. Rob Sullivan was in town for the European premiere of his "Gemini Fantasy" which Schnellenlauter was conducting at the London Proms.
Now a year ago, Rob had been murdered, his new opera nearly destroyed, and his cousin and I, along with Cameron, caught up in the international intrigues of SHMRG, very nearly getting ourselves killed. And here I was in London at least for a few days to hear a concert suite taken from Rob's opera.
LauraLynn was full of plans for the London premiere of Rob's Faustus, Inc., scheduled for the summer season of next year, despite Schweinwald's original production – including scores and parts – being destroyed in a fire.
Whatever SHMRG was up to, since their man Arthur Lemm was running Schweinwald after its two previous directors had been murdered – both Rob's and Franz-Dieter Zeitgeist's deaths had been laid squarely at SHMRG's door – it didn't really matter in the long run, since LauraLynn had a back-up disc with files for the scores and parts. It didn't matter either that SHMRG's CEO, N. Ron Steele, viewed the opera as a highly politicized, personal attack on him, allegorically exposing his criminal past, the "real" reason Rob rewrote the final act.
What it had been was an up-dating of the old Faust legend where a man sells his soul to the devil but reset into a modern corporate environment in which Mephistopheles was the CEO. Trust me, N. Ron Steele should not have been the only corporate boss to see himself standing in Arachne Webb's stilettos.
The cab came to a halt beside an imposing white and brick building. Akhmed's raised palm indicated this was our destination and I paid the fare. While my thanks and good-bye were answered with a grunt and a nod, Cameron and the cabby exchanged several more pleasantries.
Realizing we were now over twenty minutes late, I looked for the restaurant and asked Cameron what that was all about.
"Oh, he could see why you were staying there as opposed to here."
|The Mandeville Hotel, not on a snowy day|
"Well, we're here now, so let's figure out where the restaurant is," I said, "some place called 'Reformed Grille & Social.'"
After following the doorman's directions, we found ourselves in a trendy-looking restaurant rather than, as I expected, a Victorian gentleman's club, crowded for a Monday morning, the weather notwithstanding, already buzzing with friendly chatter. In a booth under a photograph of what looked like aging rock stars, someone was waving at us, motioning us over.
"Ah, good, they're here" I said, pulling Cameron along, "they haven't left yet." Actually, it didn't look like they'd ordered yet. LauraLynn and her fiancé stood to greet us and traded hugs and handshakes.
I almost didn't recognize LauraLynn with shorter hair than when we'd last met. Before I could apologize, she began to apologize, how they had only just arrived moments ago and ordered some much-needed coffee.
"When I called your hotel to tell the concierge we were running late, he assured me that you had already left."
Even casually dressed in dark gray slacks and a luxurious, turquoise turtle-necked sweater, she looked stunning and elegant without any effort. Her outfit today alone probably equaled my entire clothes budget for three years.
"But, Terry, really" she said, lowering her voice, "why were you staying there? That place must have such an uncouth reputation."
Granted, the Cheap Bastard Arms wasn't exactly 'Upstairs/Downstairs,' but it fit the plan.
"You could've stayed at my place," she continued, "I've got plenty of room. Look, after the rehearsal, go check out and..."
She was interrupted by the waiter who introduced himself as Trevor and politely plopped the menus down in front of us. Burnson, speaking for the first time, suggested we order first and chat latter. LauraLynn agreed but under her breath urged me to bring my things up to her place in Maida Vale after lunch.
I'd chosen the Cheap Bastard because it was close to Victoria Station where we could catch the train to Phlaumix Court.
"Yes," Burnson agreed, "the Southern line to Snaffingham – a couple stations beyond Dorking."
Phlaumix Court, located deep in Surrey's Mole Valley on the outskirts of London, was the stately ancestral home of Burnson's family: the wedding was being held there this weekend with just family and friends. The only serious problem was the weather forecast, complete with an imminent blizzard, which was becoming more dire by the hour.
LauraLynn, as usual, seemed unperturbed by the weather – it was snowing buckets, already – but admitted it could be worse by evening. Besides, Burnson mentioned he had an important board meeting with his company tomorrow. The plan had been to drive to Snaffingham sometime after tomorrow morning's meeting but he could postpone it and leave tonight.
"I'm sure that reception after Schnelly's concert will go quite late," she said, already resigned to the inevitable and necessary glad-handing. "There'll be major backers there for the opera, and I must impress them..."
She was once again interrupted by Trevor, now ready to take our order. Fortunately, he politely started with the decisive LauraLynn.
"I'll have the Eggs Benedict," pointing it out. "They're really quite good, here."
Burnson opted for the same, but I balked at the idea of spending $16 for poached eggs after doing the math.
He recommended we try the standard English Breakfast – including sausage, bacon, tomato, a flat mushroom, beans, black pudding and two eggs – though it would cost, I figured, $25 each which seemed even more absurd.
LauraLynn must have seen Cameron's quick glance in my direction, looking for approval – he was, after all, still a growing boy – when she said, "go ahead: it's my treat, you know – you're my guests."
I chose their Royal Eggs instead (still, at $17) which included smoked salmon but, despite the Hollandaise sauce, sounded slightly healthier.
Burnson, amused by LauraLynn's comment, may not have been familiar with my background, coming as he did from the 'landed aristocracy,' but at least he wasn't condescending about it like some of LauraLynn's family. Given those summer vacations when she'd met me, a childhood friend of Rob's, she knew my background was purely middle class.
Both she and Burnson had inherited considerable fortunes but were also successful in the stock market like Rob's father had been. Plus, even if Rob eventually became a composer, he'd become a famous one.
Burnson Allan, grandson of the 11th Marquess of Quackerly, was no ordinary stockbroker with his love of art, especially classical music. He regularly attended the opera and contemporary music programs, occasionally commissioning new works. Not as tall as LauraLynn, he was no less striking in his appearance, his dark hair now salt-and-peppered, his chin square-cut.
They made a handsome couple and I was happy she had found someone that suited her so well, physically and emotionally, especially after last year's horrors with her cousin's murder and everything at Schweinwald.
While we waited, she told us (once again) how she had met Burnson a week after returning from the opera's premiere, when they were standing in line for tickets at Wigmore Hall's box office.
She'd been reading a review, picking up today's paper to strike a pose, when Cameron shouted, "OMG, look at that! Zenn!"
= = = = = = =
To be continued...
* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *
The usual disclaimer: The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben, which you've no doubt figured out by now, is a work of fiction and as such all the characters (especially their names) and incidents of its story are more or less the product of the author's imagination, sometimes inspired by elements of parody, occasionally by personal experience. Many of the places are real (or real-ish) but not always "realistically used," like the Mandeville Hotel and the Royal Academy of Music's Duke's Hall (my apologies to both the hotel and the concert venue for having murders committed there). Other places like Phlaumix Court and Umberton are purely fictional. Any similarity between characters and real people, living or dead, is entirely coincidental, but then, as Klavdia Klangfarben keeps quoting a former professor of hers, "Perception is everything." Yadda yadda yadda.
©2016 by Richard Alan Strawser for Thoughts on a Train