Max and Bella were sipping small cups of sweet Greek coffee on the rooftop of Café Avissinia, overlooking the Acropolis. They were both distinguished violinists. They thought that if it came to it, they might spend winter in Athens and buy warm jumpers. Bella would also look for a couple of jumpsuits, which were useful for playing cello, her second instrument. They admired my hat and asked me where I had bought it. I told them about the horses and the woman with the old man.
Doesn’t sound like you tried very hard to return her hat. Why do you want the horses so much?
Max and Bella looked at me knowingly, but what did they know?
They knew I was a child prodigy and they knew how my foster parents gifted me, age six, to Arthur Goldstein, who adopted me so I could become a resident pupil at his music school. I had been moved from a humble house near Ipswich in Suffolk to a grander house in Richmond, London. They knew about my audition and then scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, they knew about the international prizes and Carnegie Hall, the recordings of recital work and piano concertos under the baton of the greatest conductors, most recently, and fatally, in the Golden Hall in Vienna. They knew about my acclaimed interpretations of Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Liszt, Ravel, Schumann, and they knew I had lost my nerve and was making mistakes. They knew I was now thirty-four. No lovers. No children. There was not a homely cup of coffee perched on my piano, teaspoon tucked into the saucer, a dog in the background, a river view outside my window or a companion making pancakes behind the scenes. And they knew about the concert I had messed up three weeks ago while playing Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and how I had walked off the stage in Vienna. I had played it many times before that particular concert. They knew I was heading for the Greek island of Poros to teach a thirteen-year-old boy. Just three piano lessons had been scheduled. We had agreed I would be paid by the hour in cash. Perhaps they thought I needed cheering up. Max and Bella announced they had a surprise for me. They had booked a trip on a boat with their friend Vass, a fisherman, who would take me diving for sea urchins before my first lesson.
Bella looked happy. Being in love with Max obviously made her think she could say anything she liked because she was wrapped in love. Look, Elsa, we know it’s as much about Arthur as anything else. I mean what an arse he is, Arthur. We get it that you were his inspiration, his child muse, even his salvation, frankly. No one could live up to that. Elsa, he is a short man. With complexes.
She drew out the word c-o-m-p-l-e-x-e-s. Who doesn’t have a few of those?
Well, for a start he wears a nine-foot cravat in case no one notices him.
Yes, I said, that’s one of the reasons why I love him.
Arthur had written to me after that fatal concert. I felt you were not there when you walked on stage. Where were you, Elsa?
I had lost where we were under the baton of M. The orchestra went one way, the piano went another way. My fingers refused to bend for Rachmaninov and I began to play something else. Arthur had taught me at six years old to ‘detach my mind from commonplace things’, but it seemed that commonplace things had walked into my mind that night.
Max asked me if it was true that Arthur was now living in Sardinia. I told him it was true. He owned a small house in a town famous for its melons, sixty-four kilometres from Cagliari. He had been holidaying there for years, but now he had made it his home.
They wanted to know why.
He thinks love is more possible in the south. Does Arthur have a lover?
I don’t know.
They had meant it as a joke because he was now eighty. I never knew anything about his romantic life. I had not once seen Arthur with a partner, though I suspected he had his own arrangements. He was fifty-two when he adopted me, so maybe the most inflamed parts of his libido had been tamed.
Also, Bella said, as if she had made a list of mysteries to be solved and I was one of them, we don’t know why you are teaching random children with no talent. You know, Elsa, every conservatoire in the world would employ you as an eminent professor. Get real.
I tried to get real in a way that would please Bella, so I said, Yes, I am teaching to pay the rent and buy a kebab until the pandemic settles. It wasn’t true, my savings would tide me over, but I wanted to pull the tail down on everything I was feeling at this moment. Arthur was my teacher, but he was also a sort of father. The only father I had, and I loved him without measure. When I was young, he always sat by my side when I played. Your fingers are asleep, he’d shout, what is the point of teaching a sleeper? At the same time my fingers were lively. Trembling. I didn’t know how to be to please him.
I had no desire to scare my own students.
Bella leaned across the table and kissed my cheek. We had known each other for a long time. Her ex-husband, Rajesh, had been a pupil at Arthur’s summer school for a month. He and I had met when we were twelve, and had remained close friends ever since. In fact, I had introduced Bella to Rajesh when they were both twenty. They had married three years later, which no one at the time had understood. Now they had recently separated and she had hooked up with Max in Athens. I felt this long history, and her concern, in her kiss. To touch my cheek with her lips was quite a dangerous thing to do. I had lost track of where we were in the various waves of the virus. The big lockdowns were over, but everyone was still afraid.
Elsa, Bella said, please forget about the Rach and smile again.
Sergei Rachmaninov never smiled. His powerful left hand, his stern face, the sadness that lifted as he wrote Piano Concerto No. 2. Maybe he would smile at the way we always called him Rach, as if he were a friend dropping by to borrow a phone charger. I had listened to his big musical thoughts from the age of fifteen. For a while, Arthur and I had worked together on nothing but Rach and Tchaikovsky, because, as he had shown me, Rachmaninov was in love with Tchaikovsky, yet was much more structurally innovative. Although we lived in different centuries, both Rach and I were popular soloists at a young age, giving concerts at various conservatoires. I gestured to the waiter, a small wave of my fingers, perhaps in the manner of a diva. Let’s move on, I suggested to my friends, let me invite you to a glass of ouzo. I have to get to the port of Piraeus. The waiter did the honours and we raised our glasses not quite knowing what to say next. Someone had painted the words Death Drugs Life Beauty in black paint under an archway of city jasmine that seemed to be having a second autumn flowering.
I put on the hat and heard myself in communion with the woman who had bought the horses. I am going to find you, I said to her in my head. In exchange for your hat, you will give me the horses.
Bella turned her head away to disguise whatever expression she had just exchanged with Max.
I just don’t get it, she said. That concert you walked out of. I mean, Rach had giant hands. He could span twelve piano keys from the tip of his little finger to the tip of his thumb.
Never bothered me before, I replied, but what I was thinking about were the pink acrylic nails worn by the model on the cover of the in-flight shopping magazine on my way to Athens. Her pale hand had looked like a corpse to me, every freckle and line airbrushed out. She held between her limp fingers the stem of a cocktail glass which was half full of a pink liquid to match her nails. Some sort of liqueur. Apparently, this drink made emotions. That’s what it said, emotions were made with this liqueur. At the same time I was playing in my head a melancholy mazurka by Frédéric Chopin, Op. 17, No. 4.
Bella tapped me on the shoulder. If you see Rajesh when you return to London, tell him he owes me six months of our mortgage.
Now it was Max’s turn. Hey, Elsa, I don’t know what happened, but everyone wants you to play again. It’s like you’ve cancelled yourself. I adjusted the hat, tipping it forwards. A chorus of birds started to sing me out of the building when I began to walk down the steps of the rooftop to the exit.
Bella was calling out to me. I had left my phone on the table. The ringtone was Birdsong. As I walked back to get it, a species of bird trilled and warbled. It sang every time I received a text message. Arthur in Sardinia was asking me on WhatsApp to visit him. My fingers tapped the words: But I work.
Be careful of your hands, he texted back.
I suppose that, like the liqueur in the magazine, my hands made emotions. And then he wrote in capital letters with his ancient right hand, the hand that would grab my wrist as a child and lift it off the keys when he wanted me to use the pedals.
WHAT ABOUT THE BLUE?
A week before the Rachmaninov concert I had decided to dye my hair blue. Arthur tried to dissuade me. After all, my long brown hair, always plaited and coiled around my head, was my signature look. Elsa M. Anderson, the piano virtuoso who in some ways resembled a prima ballerina. In my teens I experimented with two plaited bunches, pinning them into spheres on either side of my head. Arthur thought this style lacked gravitas, but I kept it for a while. My dear, he said, if you are hell-bent on wrecking your lovely hair, you must go to my own salon in Kensington.
Blue was a separation from my DNA. We both knew that I wanted to sever the possibility that I resembled my unknown parents. Arthur was bewildered that I had no desire to search for them. Or to make contact with my foster parents. From the age of ten he had told me I could look at ‘the documents’ any time I liked. He meant the adoption papers. I think he was forever preparing himself for the inevitable search I would begin to find my birth parents. But I never wanted to read ‘the documents’ and told him so. Arthur always replied, I admire your great strength.
By the time he arrived at the salon, I had already been there for three hours. The colourist had to bleach my hair before applying the dye. Arthur had bought us both a sandwich from Pret. He handed me mine and confided that he had also purchased two chocolate marshmallow biscuits which were melting in his pocket. For some reason he wanted to discuss Nietzsche’s relationship with Wagner, not just with me, but with all the staff at the salon. Perhaps he was nervous about the blue. The stylist who was working on my hair in tandem with the colourist asked him who these men were.
Nietzsche was the all-too-human philosopher, Arthur said, Wagner the composer, mostly of inflamed operas. Out of the two of them, Nietzsche was more likely to have dyed his tash blue. So what was their relationship? It’s a matter of temperature, Arthur replied, scalding would be the word for their relationship. It seemed that to get away from his crush on Wagner, Nietzsche began listening to the French composer Bizet, because it was music that had the morning sun in it. Yes, said Arthur, Nietzsche decided Bizet’s music had ‘a more sunburned outlook’. Arthur sat down and started to unwrap his sandwich. As it happens, he said, Nietzsche’s own compositions were rather ecclesiastical for someone who was screaming ‘God is dead’ from every mountain and bridge. He played piano and composed until quite late in life, but he felt he had failed as a composer, which was probably true. Wagner thought so too. Frankly, whatever was going on in Nietzsche’s head was better expressed in philosophy and not in music. My hair was being painted with a small brush. The smell of bleach made my eyes water. Well, you don’t know that, I said, as the colourist pushed my chin down, you don’t know anything about Nietzsche’s own compositions, the ones he never wrote.
Ah, but I do, Arthur replied mysteriously, some of us are creators—he bit into his egg mayonnaise sandwich— and the rest of us are performers.
Perhaps he was talking about my own early attempts at composition. It was as if he knew I could hear something that he did not understand, and resented it. As my fingers found the keys, I discovered that I had a point of view. All I had to do to tear it open was listen.
The stylist asked me to shift in my seat so she could retie the back of my protective black gown.
Nietzsche rightly believed, Arthur continued, dabbing at his lips with a napkin, that music was the highest art, the essence of being. Yet he broke with Wagner’s infinitely exhausting melodies just as one breaks a plate and sees no point in putting it together again. Arthur was now forensically removing the egg white from his egg mayonnaise sandwich. The idea of a more sunburned outlook seemed to thrill him, probably because of his house in Sardinia. I agree with Nietzsche, he said, tossing his walking stick on the floor, that love is more possible in the south.
Blue has to sit on a very light blonde. The whole process took nearly six hours. I could tell Arthur was excited, appalled and a little agitated. We sipped tea, I with my hair wrapped in foils. At one point he kissed my hand as if I was about to have major surgery. He wouldn’t stop talking. Had he told them, he asked, about collecting me from school and how one day his long, white chiffon scarf nearly got caught in the wheels of the car and strangled him, Isadora Duncan–style? Elsa is en-trance-d by Isadora, he whispered to the colourist, who was now giving the intern instructions on where to buy her a quinoa salad. Arthur knew I was reading the autobiography of Isadora Duncan, the mother of modern dance, as she was sometimes described. I often watched the students of Isadora’s technique on YouTube as they performed her choreographies, mostly accompanied by the music of Bach, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Schumann. They were barefoot and wore flimsy togas. I think the idea was to show me how to be happy and free.
My colourist was still in conversation with the intern. She added a Coke to the lunch list and explained how it had to be as cold as a corpse.
A corpse is not necessarily cold, my dear, Arthur interrupted. It takes at least twelve hours for blood to cool in the human body.
It seemed that Arthur was going to stay until the end, so she suggested he have a wash and blow-dry himself. The director of the salon, Rafael from Rotherhithe and Rio, as he described himself, was used to being discreet about the effort it took to raise the chair to get Arthur’s head to reach the basin. The youngest intern suddenly arrived with three cushions. At last his head was in the basin. Everyone wanted him to drown.
When the time came for the blue dye to be rinsed, Arthur was somewhat breathless. He knew I would be playing the Golden Hall in Vienna with blue hair in a week’s time. The audience who had come to listen to their favourite piano virtuoso might wonder if she’d been replaced by someone else.
The colourist was very tense.
For a moment I thought about my birth mother. And then my foster mother.
My new sleek blue hair rippled down my back to just above my waist.
I had two mothers. One had given me up. And I had given up the woman who had replaced her. I could hear them gasping.
Arthur flung his arms in the air. My dear, he said, as I don’t have an open sleigh to be pulled by huskies across the stormy streets of London, we will share a taxi. You, Elsa M. Anderson, are now a natural blue.
Excerpted from August Blue: A Novel by Deborah Levy. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2023 by Deborah Levy. All rights reserved.