“It’s quiet up here.” The old landlady said, exhausted from the climb. She shuffled over to the window and drew back the curtain. “You’re five floors above the street, you won’t hear anything up here.”
“It’s chilly, does the fireplace work?”
“Like a charm,” she said proudly. “I’ll get you a bucketful of coal. Just be careful of the smoke, I cleaned the curtains last week.”
The man walked to the window and looked down - it was a long way to the street. Far below he could see the sign “Dorset Inn” swinging restlessly in the wind. He could eat there – far back,away from the door, near the kitchen, away from the bar. No one would see him back there. And up here, who would bother to climb five flights of stairs to see him in this run down rooming house. Yes, he would be out of the way. He wanted to be far out of the way.
He turned to the landlady. “What should I expect from the plumbing?”
She smiled nervously and looked away. “You should expect it to be a little slow in the mornings,” she said. “It may take a while for the toilet to flush in the mornings – and of course there is only hot water on Saturdays.” She changed the subject quickly. “The gentleman will not need a key for this apartment.”
“Why is that Madame?”
“You are on the top floor, sir, No one will pass your door.”
“It sounds good to me, Madame. You won’t forget about the coal, will you?”
“I’ll send my nephew – my knees you know. It would be ten flights up and down ... unless ... unless.”
“The gentleman cares to get it himself. It’s in the bin in the back yard.”
“I’ll wait for your nephew. Goodnight Madam.”
He waited until he heard the padding of her slippers on the stair, then he closed the door and although he didn’t have to, he locked it with the key she had given him. He struck a match and lit the oil lamp on the table. He liked the apartment. One room. A sink and a stove in the corner, a fireplace in the other corner and a small bed by the wall near the door. A table, which he would use as a desk stood by the window overlooking the street.
It was at this table that he planned to write the final chapter of the life of Madeleine Pavia.
He opened his suitcase and removed the notebook from the side pocket. He thumbed through the pages to his last line, the one he’d written shortly after her tragic death, and almost immediately he heard her singing. It was in her lower register and then it climbed smoothly – effortlessly, without increasing in volume. It was the aria from the third act of Andrea Chenier. He could see her plainly, her blond hair severely pulled back in a style that emphasized her features.
Madeleine’s voice could be heard in the last row of the balcony; it could cut through the tangled web of the orchestra and yet caress the ear of the audience in the first row.
How to put all this into words! Words could not begin to describe her physical beauty or her musicianship. Only her presence could do that. He shut his eyes to see her again. With his eyes closed he saw her as clearly as if she were here with him, in this room. Her fabulous voice floated through the shabby room like a muted violin.
So long as he kept his eyes shut he could see her, yes ... and hear her too. Would it be possible to keep her with him always? Could they be together again as they were when he accompanied her? They had worked long hours on every program, covering every detail, working os her phrasing; her gestures. The merest flash of eye contact was all they needed to communicate. At the end of the concert she would extend her arms to him and he would stand and go to her and together holding hands they would take their bows together. He would be careful to bow only slightly and stand well back of her as she curtsied. There would always be bouquets from the audience and she would always pull a rose from one and offer it to him. They called it the “thank you” rose.
He left the book open to the last page and looked at his watch. Nearly six – growing colder too. It might be better, he thought, to get something to eat at the inn across the street before beginning the final chapter of Madeleine Pavia. He got his coat and hat, then glanced at the cold fireplace. He picked up the empty coal scuttle. He’d fill it when he came back from the inn.
The food was heavier than he was used to. The wine, red and raw. It was a meal that a lorry driver would eat with gusto, then suffer in silence from indigestion all night. From his table at the rear of the restaurant he could see a heavy cloud of smoke hanging over the bar and making its way slowly into the kitchen. There was rough talk at the bar and occasionally a man would look his way and in a barely concealed undertone make a remark that would generate coarse laughter from everyone except the bartender. He sensed it was meant to provoke him. He was the only man in the Dorset Inn wearing a tie, his shoes were polished, his coat and hat were folded neatly on the chair across the table from him, and he sat with his jacket buttoned.
He reminded himself that things were not going the way he wanted them to. He wanted to be alone, and ignored. He was starting a new life now and he didn’t want anyone to stop by and pass the time of day. He was wise enough to ignore the remarks and eventually the men at the bar turned their backs on him.
“You musn’t mind the hoodlums, luv. They like nothin’ better than t’pick on strangers.” A fat woman sitting two tables from him smiled at him revealing a missing upper front tooth. She was eating chips and held a half empty ale mug in her left hand holding her pinky out straight as if it were broken. In the poor light it was difficult to tell what color her dress was -- but it was dark and it emphasized the doughy skin of her neck and arms.
Paul smiled at her absently, not wishing to encourage further conversation. He signaled for the waiter and stood up to put his coat on. The waiter totaled up his dinner on a scrap of paper, licking his pencil at frequent intervals. “That’s one and six for the pork pot pie – the wine’ll be ...”
“Add a stein of ale for the lady in the dark dress.”
The waiter turned to look at the fat lady, who quickly downed her half empty glass. “Yer lucky day old girl,” he shouted, “This gentleman just stood you to another round.”
He paid up quickly and walked out. The fat lady pushed her empty stein aside to make room for her refill. She smiled fondly after Paul and shouted after him, “Yer a prince, young man -- and a gentleman through and through.”
Paul hoped every dinner would not be like this one. He didn’t realize he would stand out so noticeably in a run down tavern like the Dorset Inn -- “It might be wise to dine elsewhere,” he thought. He stopped at the curb and looked up at his window on the fifth floor. The lamp in his room seemed as small as a votive candle. He picked up the coal scuttle he left in the lobby and walked through the building to the rear yard.
By the time he reached the fifth floor with the heavy scuttle he was breathing heavily, he realized how difficult it would have been for the old landlady. He knew he would have to do this himself at least once a day. Someone had laid a fire - and there was a full scuttle of coal on the brick hearth. “Ah!” He thought, “The landlady’s nephew – wish I’d known.” He hoped he could depend on him, and yet ... it meant his room was open for inspection by the landlady and her nephew ... he made a note to get a better lock for the door.
As these thoughts ran through his mind, he was conscious of a living presence in the room with him. The room was small enough to see every corner of it. It was empty, and yet ... there was a presence. It was a recurring feeling he had since Madeleine’s death, as though someone was looking over his shoulder – and there was a faint scent. Where could that come from? Perhaps someone who lived here before; a woman no doubt. The scent was sweet, not sugar sweet, but pleasant with a touch of spice – somewhat like cloves. Madeleine used them when he first met her. She said it was because she would do her scales in the morning before breakfast and she was afraid of offending her old teacher, Maestro Korsach. She didn’t want to give him anything to complain about. As if he would! But still, that’s the way Madeleine was. So apologetic – so timid. In the beginning ...
That’s why he was here, to make it plain – to make sure her adoring audience knew it wasn’t his fault. It was because of the change in her.
It was the Greek hotel builder, Andropas, the bastard! It all started with him and it ended with a $300,000 diamond necklace. She wanted to wear it at her last concert in Brussels. “Ridiculous,” he told her. “It will get all the attention. No one will listen to you with that thing around your neck – besides it must weight ten pounds.”
It wasn’t only the necklace, of course. It was Andropas. With his yacht and his villa and his race cars and hide-a-ways along the Gold Coast of the Mediterranean.
Paul rubbed his hands together. That’s what he was here for. That’s why he rented this room; to write the final chapter to the story of Madeleine Pavia, and to justify ... to explain why he had to do what he did.
Before walking to the little table by the window, he checked the room again. The feeling of someone there with him was still powerful. He shivered slightly and then opened the book .... the last two pages were written in lavender ink! Madeleine used ink like that ... the handwriting was hers! Her pen lay next to the book. He recognized the gold tracery inlay, it was still warm, warmer than the room.
Strangely enough he wasn’t frightened. That surprised him. He almost expected the words to be there – he knew she would have the last word. “I stood at the balcony railing looking out over the city. Paul was standing at the piano with the music in his hand.”
Yes, that much was true. Then what did I do, Madeleine? I did what I had to do. You were about to make the mistake of your life, your millions – yes millions of devoted fans – for a pig like Andropov. So I put the music back on the piano and walked out on the balcony ... to beg you one more time. You refused. You said the singing meant nothing now! Let the people play the records, to let them leave you alone. What would old Korsach say? Believe me, he would have done it if he had the strength to do it. But he didn’t.
I had to do it.
I watched you fall. Our eyes locked at one point, and your glance was not an accusing one. I even thought, for a moment, there was an expression of relief – as though you expected it. Maybe even thanked me for it. I think at that moment you realized, maybe for the first time, the terrible responsibility that comes with a talent as great as yours, Madeleine. Your voice was not yours to take away, it belonged to everyone.
Paul read the last purple lines of the book. They were written without rancor – almost as a confession that her tragic death was appropriate, far more than her arbitrary retirement would have been. He could have burned the book and maintained his innocence, but it was better to let her have the last word.
Her words would be the final chapter. He closed the book carefully and placed it on the chair by the table. He moved the table aside and stood at the open window looking into the street five storys below.