Sonata In B Minor

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Written by Virginia C. Knowles Hits: 4869

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Description: A short story about love and music
Summary: When Mei Lien finds her best friend gone from her life, she tries to  make sense of it, just to discover the truth to be even more unsuspected.
Rating: All Audiences
License: Story: Creative Commons CC-BY 3.0
Cover Image: By Wikimedia Commons User Frink51 under CC-BY-SA 3.0

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This story is a guest story by Virgina. Thank you sharing this with me!

Sonata in B minor

Virginia C. Knowles

My own instrument resting on my knee resonated with the sound of her sisters around me. Knowing I had no part in this piece, I closed my eyes and allowed myself to be carried away by the music, away to the candle-lit halls in which its magic must have been first felt. It had been like this since I could remember. Baroque and Renaissance music always had that effect on me - like opening a gateway into its own time: Even one note, if played in just the right way would transport me into distant times and places. And Aoife was certainly getting it right tonight. The sound of her viol reverberated through my soul evoking images that almost felt like memories: The smell of a fire burning in the hearth, powdered wigs, the yellowish glow of candles... And there was melancholy woven deeply into the tune, into the very texture of the sound. Maybe it stemmed from the consciousness - so much more tangible then - that all things pass. All things pass - all beauty withers and dies and yet we refuse to succumb to that terrifying truth but strife to create a beauty that will last. Maybe not last forever, but hopefully outlast our tiny lifespan... In moments like this, I could almost understand, why some people believed in metempsychosis.

Shaking off such thoughts I opened my eyes and looked at my friend. As always, Aoife had given herself entirely to the music. Her eyes were half-closed as she played from memory; she never had much use for sheet music once she had a piece down. I had always envied her that – I always felt I needed the sheet music, as a reminder at least.
“That’s only because you’re still playing your violin with your head rather than your soul”, she would scold me. “You are always worried to lose control but, darling, that’s what it’s all about: Let the music control you – you are just the messenger.” Tonight she was a perfect messenger, her performance of Bach’s Sonata No. 3 matched that of a professional.
Well, you don’t get into the Royal Academy for nothing.

I noticed our second flautist, Stephen Barton, gaze at her longingly. I couldn’t blame him, she looked absolutely stunning – another thing I had always envied her for. Aoife had a tall lithe figure, warm, light auburn hair and freckled ivory skin. The only thing not quite fitting the Irish cliché was that her eyes were of a soft greyish blue rather than green. Some of the others had come to call her ‘Our Irish Faerie’ an epithet she herself disliked: “I don’t know Mei, given the amount of crap I had to endure for being ‘ginger’ and Irish, I can’t really find that flattering.”

Tonight she wore a dark teal gown which contrasted wonderfully with her hair. We had picked that out only last week. Which really meant I picked it for her. For a girl as beautiful as Aoife it was surprising how little she cared about how she looked. If they had let her, she would probably have performed in the same jeans and jumper she wore every day.

I felt a bit sorry for Stephen having recently witnessed Aoife tell him, in her rather blunt, but by no means unkind, manner, that she thought him a nice guy but was ‘neither romantically nor sexually interested’ (she’d used those actual words) in him.
“Better he’d know right away that it was futile”, she had told me afterwards, “I may be blunt, Mei, I’m not cruel.”

I closed my eyes again and let the music take me back into its secret world. When the last note of the final Vivace had died away, there was a moment of absolute silence in the audience, followed by thunderous applause.

The last piece for tonight was to be a Concerto Grosso by Telemann. I glanced over to Aoife as we prepared, and was startled that she would avoid my eyes and look away, pretending to busy herself with the tuning of her instrument. Something was clearly wrong. It could not have been her performance as that had been excellent. She had been tense for a couple of days but I had dismissed that as stage fright – I knew her to be quite the perfectionist, after all – or, more likely, she’d had trouble with her very catholic father again. Whatever the reason, clearly something was bothering her now. Something she had not told me about – and that was a first. I was so engrossed in my thoughts that I very nearly botched up my entry. We gave quite a passable performance (no thanks to me) but for the first time I could not enjoy the applause. All I wanted was for the whole thing to be over so I could talk to Aoife.

I found her ‘backstage’ in the vestry, packing.
“You were truly phenomenal, sweetie”, I began.
She just shrugged. I was even more worried now. She had given a brilliant performance and she knew it. Normally she would be in high spirits for hours.
“Aoife, what is it? What’s wrong?” I tried to put my arm on her shoulder but she brushed it away:
“Nothing. Just leave it.”
“Yeah, right. Nothing, huh? So why does it look like something then?”
“Don’t, OK? Don’t. Just leave it Emily!”
‘Emily’? She never used my English name. Usually she called me Mei or, punning on the similarity in the sound, ‘mei mei’: ‘little sister’. If she was trying to sound very serious she might use my full name ‘Mei Lien’, sometimes even with my family name ‘Yuen’, but never Emily. I recked my brains to find what I might have done to anger her but couldn’t think of anything. Besides, knowing Aoife, she’d have told me on the spot if I had been out of line somewhere. So what the blazes was going on here?
She turned to go, hesitated a moment, turned back and hugged me:
“I love you Yuen Mei Lien.”
And then she was gone.

 

I stood there, dumbfounded. Had those been tears in her eyes? I packed my things in a flurry and hastened after her, but by the time I had made my way through the crowd she was nowhere to be seen.
“Have you seen Aoife?”
I was startled by the voice of our conductor next to me. Mrs Cecilia Clement was a good-natured, portly woman in her late sixties, truly the heart and soul of ‘The Islington Concert’.
“I meant to thank her for sticking with us hopeless bunch of amateurs even on her way to fame and glory. She was truly spectacular, don’t you think?”
“Yes, she was ... enchanting”, I managed to say, “but I think she already took off.”
I had tried to sound normal, but my confusion and anxiety must have been written all over my face. Mrs Clement immediately noticed something was amiss.
“Good grief, is something wrong?”
“I - I honestly don’t know.” I stammered, “She was acting ... strange. And I think she might have been crying.”
“Oh dear. Do you have –” I cut her short: “Forgive me Mrs C. but I think I’ll try to catch her at the tube station.” And with that I was off.

 

I didn’t find her.
I tried to ring her mobile. Nothing.
I texted her. More nothing.
I considered calling her home number and was halfway through dialling when I realized she wouldn’t be there yet.
My stomach lurched. I felt completely helpless. I was on new territory here – something like that simply never had happened before. My best friend was in trouble and I had no idea how to help her. Hell, I didn’t even have a clue what was wrong with her.

I had known Aoife virtually all my life. She had been like a sister to me. In school we had been inseparable – so much so, actually, that Andrew, one of our more geeky friends, used to call us ‘the smallest ever Borg collective’ in a reference to Star Trek TNG.

Even after we had entered university last year (I was enrolled at London Met for Informatics, and she’d made it into the RAM) we spend most of our weekends and leisure time together. And there was Mrs C.’s ‘Islington Concert’, of course. Music had always been a big part of our lives. We had played and practised together and from some point on I believe I learned more from her than from my violin lessons. But while for me it was a beautiful hobby, for her it was clearly a calling. It was her life. Her mother had been a gifted viol player, but Aoife was beyond gifted, she was blessed. I will never forget the day she was accepted at the RAM. It was a dream come true for Aoife and she had been giddy with excitement for days.

We had seen each other through all the highs and lows of our young lives. When her mother had died of cancer a year ago, I had been the first to know. It was my shoulder she’d cried on and my arms to cuddle and comfort her. And I cannot begin to count the many nights she spend at my place for a sleep-over or whenever she’d had a row with her father. We both still lived at our parent’s house, which, given the mad rents in London, seemed the sensible thing to do. Only that in her case it might not have been an ideal solution as her father had always been rather strict and overly protective of her. That had only gotten worse since her mother’s death and so she would spend a lot of time at our place. We had often discussed the possibility of her finding her own place during the past year, but she never could work up the courage to leave her father.
“He still hasn’t come to terms with losing mum, Mei. I couldn’t do that to him. Not yet anyway.”

So whatever it was that was troubling her, why wouldn’t she tell me like she always had? What was she up to?
I was genuinely worried and desperately tried to recall anything in our latest encounters that might give me a clue as to what was going on. All I found, however, was that she had indeed been more and more distant lately. But whenever I had asked her what it was that was bothering her, she had shrugged it off:
“Nothing. I’m fine. Really. Stop worrying, stupid.”

Not knowing what else to do, I decided to go home, maybe try to reach her on the phone again, maybe ask my mother what to do. She knew Aoife quite well, since she had spent so much time with us, so she might have an idea how to deal with this. I was just at my door, when my I got a text. It was from Aoife:

 

Sry. Didn’t mean to scare you. Not doing anything stupid.
Promise.
XX” 

That lifted the weight on me somewhat, but I still felt very uncomfortable about it all. My parents were out – right, a friend’s birthday party, I remembered – so I dashed straight into my room, sat on my bed and answered her text.

Well, you did. What is it, sweetie? Anything I can do? You know I’malways here for you.
Love you.
XOXO

This time it didn’t take her very long to answer.

Don’t be mad at me. There are things I have to ... get sorted.
Sry, Mei, this one I’ll have to sort out alone.
Will let you know, when I’m ready.

‘OK, girl. Getting cryptic on me now, are you?’ What the ... was I supposed to make of that. I sighed, threw the mobile on my pillow, got up and paced my room. My phone hummed. Another text.

Calm down, get some sleep. Or do some of your nerdy IT stuff.
Aoife out.” 

There clearly wasn’t much I could do but follow her advice. Sleep was out of the question, of course, so eventually I picked up a large volume on my latest obsession in programming languages: ‘Clojure’. (“Really, Mei, I don’t think I know anyone else who’d think ‘programming language’ when they hear ‘closure’ - where do you geeks come up with those names, anyway?”). Not that I made much progress but at least it helped me steady my nerves a little. I must have nodded off at some point, because I woke to a searing pain in my shoulder and half a keyboard imprinted on my cheek. I logged out, went to the bathroom and straight to bed.

 

The following day was a Sunday. Under normal circumstances I would have spent it with Aoife, but I had decided to leave her be for now. I wavered more than once in my resolution as that day dragged on but somehow I managed to keep myself from calling her. Monday and Tuesday went by without so much as a sign from her. By Wednesday afternoon I couldn’t stand it any longer and called her number. She did not answer my call so I left a message on her mailbox. I send her a text. Still nothing. That night I wrote her an email, which must have sounded rather desperate. Well, I was worried and I missed her. I was actually a little surprised at just how much I missed her. Maybe it was the uncertainty about how she was, that gave it such urgency. Of course we had gone longer than this without talking, but never under such circumstances.

Saturday, after two more days of screaming silence, I’d had enough. I decided to visit her. With a great deal of apprehension I walked up to the front door of the Kavanagh home, worked up my courage and rang the bell. I stood there for what felt like an eternity, waiting, hoping, fearing the worst. Did it take forever, or was it just my nerves? I was just about to ring the doorbell again, when Liam, Aoife’s father, opened. The look on his face did nothing to ease my fears – he looked like a man besieged by worries. I wondered briefly, if I looked like that myself.
“Emily!”
He hovered indecisively on the doorstep for a moment.
“Ah well, come in.”
Liam led me into the kitchen and busied himself with pouring coffee.
“How is she, Liam? Can I see her?”
“Sit down, cailín. Coffee?”
I shook my head.
“She’s in a bad way, Emily. Sitting there in her room, crying her eyes out. Might be it was all to much for her. What with her mother’s death, and all the – changes lately. And, I am sorry, Emily, she will not see you. She didn’t even want me to let you in. Says she needs some time on her own. Sort things out. And I think we should let her.”
I was not prepared to give up that easily.
“But Liam, I – I need to know why?”
“Wish I knew that, cailín – but I am certain none of this is your fault.
Look, you know I’ll look after her. Just give her time, she’ll pull round.”
For a brief moment, I considered running upstairs and banging on her bedroom door until she’d let me in. It must have shown on my face, because Liam shook his head in reply
“Don’t, Emily. It won’t do no good.”
I had to submit. What else could I do? So a couple of minutes later I was on my way to the tube, feeling even more desperate than before.

I don’t know how I managed to keep it together on my way back home. I didn’t even have tears. Just that terrible empty feeling. Hollowed out. I began to understand what people meant when they said they had their heart torn out. Because that was exactly what it felt like.


When I got home I found she had finally sent me a mail:

Mei, this maybe the hardest thing I ever had to write.
Please believe me, that I don’t want to hurt you ... I will explain one day, I promise, but please ... don’t call me, don’t text me, stop trying to see me. Please ...
I know you want to help me. But you can’t. Not with this.
So please, please, please stop trying.
Forgive me
A.



The lines blurred before my eyes and I began to sob uncontrollably.
Somehow, something had taken my best friend from me and it seemed there was nothing I could do about it. I was heartbroken and I was angry, all at the same time. I was angry with her for doing this to me, angry with myself for not being able to help her, when she obviously needed help.

I was still crying when my mother came in two hours later to ask me if I wanted to have tea with them. Seeing the state I was in, she called to my father to go ahead with the meal, closed my door and sat down beside me.

Interrupted by a fresh flood of tears in almost every other sentence, I somehow managed to tell my mother what had happened. When I had finished and calmed down somewhat, she took my hand:
“Listen, Mei Lien, these things happen. Sometimes we carry so much pain around with us, that we dare not burden our friends with it. Sometimes we know, they would not be able to help, exactly because they are so very close to us – you see, sometimes when a friend helps us to carry our burden, they keep us from dealing with it the way we should. I know it is hard for you to understand. But sometimes people need to get away from everyone and everything so they might be able to find themselves again.”
I tried to protest, but she wouldn’t let me.
“Aoife has been through an awful lot lately. You know that better than anyone: She’s lost her mother, that is a big deal, ducks. I was a lot older when your gran died, she was an old woman, and still that was very painful for me. And with Liam unable to cope with the death of his wife, Aoife had to be the strong one of the two. I don’t think she really allowed herself to grief for her mother the way she should have.”
I swallowed hard. I knew my mother had a point. Aoife’s father had yet to get over the loss. And it was true he’d laid much of the burden on Aoife. It probably did not help that she was so very much like her mother, either.
“Now add to that her new life as a Royal Academy student. That is very likely one of the most demanding programmes in musical education you can get. The pressure must be enormous. Take all of that together, and I think that is more than enough to send someone round the bend. Even someone as strong as Aoife.”
“B– but what can I do? There must be something.” I was dangerously close to tears again.
“There’s really nothing you can do, other than to have patience. I will not lie to you – it will be hard. And you may need a lot of patience. But that is all you can do: Have patience and have faith. And be ready to be there for her, when she comes through.”

 

People will tell you that it gets easier. Well, they’re wrong. It doesn’t.
Maybe it is different, when someone dies. But losing someone and knowing they are still out there, just not in your life any more - well, it makes letting go almost impossible. You get used to it, though. And in your darker hours that almost feels like betrayal.

After several months I had returned to a relatively normal state of mind. I had friends, though none of them even remotely as close as Aoife had been. I had joined the local hacker community and otherwise led a pretty average student life. Of course there where still times when I felt I couldn’t breathe for missing her so much. But that became less frequent over time.

 

Then, out of the blue, my newly found equilibrium was shattered.
Well over a year had passed since that day of the Islington Autumn Concert, when I found in my mail a neutral white envelope, containing an invitation to an Academy Concert and a short note from Aoife: “Would you come? Please.” was all it said.
I felt a plethora of emotions overwhelm me. I had hoped for something like this to happen - and I had dreaded it. Now I wasn’t sure I could make it. To see her again after all that had happened, was at once what I wanted and what I feared most. Would I be able to talk to her? Would she want that? I remembered what my mother had told me – “be ready to be there for her when she comes through” and I promised myself, I would be. But I would also try to get some answers from her. She most definitely owed me that much.

And so, on a cold and windy November evening, I found myself in the Duke’s Hall of the Royal Academy, nervous as the proverbial cat. I had considered asking my mum to come along, but after some deliberation had decided against it. This was something I had to do alone.

The event was meant to give students a platform to perform, what they had been working on in the past year and the works would range from ultra-modern to Historical Performance. I picked up a programme and found there would be seven students performing tonight. Aoife’s would be the last performance of the evening.

It was a strange feeling to see my friend’s alongside such famous names as Moonen and Charlston (well, they are her teachers here, stupid). I felt extremely proud of her. This would be quite an important evening for her, which made me wonder why I had not seen her father in the auditorium.
“Emily!” It took me a while to register someone was addressing me.
“Emily, so good to see you!” I turned to see Mrs Clement walking towards me.
“Oh my Dear. I am so glad you came. She will be so happy to see you.”
“Mrs C. I didn’t know you were... Hold on: You knew she invited me.”
“Yes, of course, Dear. It was me who convinced her that this would be ideal.” She looked at me seriously: “You two need to talk.”
Yeah. Tell me about it.
I had a million questions I wanted to ask her, but the concert was about to begin and so they would have to wait until the break at least.

The first half of the evening was dedicated to modern music; all impressively well performed, but some pieces, I had to admit, were a little too modern for my taste. I became ever more nervous as the evening drew on and I really don’t know if I’d have made it through the break, had it not been for Mrs C. She kept me busy and my mind off my worries as best as was possible under the circumstances. She would not, however, answer most of the questions I bombarded her with. She only told me that Aoife had asked her for advice, how to get back in touch with me and she had encouraged her to ask me to come here tonight.
“My first suggestion was, that she should simply come to one of our rehearsals, but she said she wouldn’t want to force herself on you.”
There was a hint of smugness in her smile that almost made me laugh when she added “So I concocted a slightly more complex plan.” I was about to ask her more, but the bell kept me from extracting the details of her clever plan from Mrs Clement.

The second half of the concert treated us to some wonderful interpretations of Mozart and Bach. Finally it was time for Aoife to take the stage. And there she was – wearing the same teal gown but instead of her trademark braid she wore her hair loose. I had tried to talk her into that for years and was satisfied to see how right I had been. She looked absolutely, overwhelmingly beautiful.

And then Telemann. It was a superb performance. Violin and viola engaged in a bewitching dialogue that was at once playful and serious and spoke of a wonderful harmony and understanding between the two musicians. I knew that piece well, it was one of my favourites, but I had rarely heard it played so beautifully. If that was Aoife in her second year at the RAM, I was sure we had to expect truly great things from her.
Now, be it as performer or audience, I have always loved this special moment in a concert, when the music finally dies and the connection that it creates between artist and audience is severed but not quite gone, that moment of silence before the applause sets in, almost as magical as the music itself – and never had I felt its magic as tangible as that night. I had tears in my eyes, and I was almost certain, I was not the only one. The applause was long and thunderous, almost deafening.

About an hour later Mrs C. ushered me to a red door of a student’s hall of residence. A brass number announced that this was apartment No. 23. With a bellyful of trepidation and anxiety –
Understatement, Mei Lien, this is full-blown panic
– I knocked. After a few seconds that could just as easily have been aeons, Aoife opened. She had changed into jeans and shirt, her gown hanging on a coat hanger from the curtain rod.
“Won’t you come in, Mei?”
It seemed, I had mutated into England’s greatest cry-baby, because all of a sudden I realised her picture had become blurry and something warm was running down my face.
“Oh, come here you -” and with that she pulled me into a tight embrace.
It took me several minutes before I could utter a coherent thought. All the pain and sadness, all deep feelings of loss and anger that I had suppressed for the last year broke their way to the surface.
“I missed you so much, Aoife. Damn it, how could you do this to me? Why? Why did you have to exclude me from your life – dump me like that?”
There was a look of deep and troubled sympathy on her face as she answered, very slowly, obviously fighting for composure.
“Mei, I am so sorry. I am beginning to see that I might have done this all wrong. But I ... I had to change a lot of things in my life. And most of all, I needed space to find out who I really was. And who I wanted to be.”
“And for that you had to kick me out of your life?” I yelled, rather more exasperated than I expected.
“At the time I didn’t see how else I was going to make it. It is rather complicated really – or may be it isn’t, but if you think you can – if you would let me try to explain –”
She broke off, her composure crumbling, and I could see tears welling up in her eyes. I took her hand.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to bite your head off ... At least I think I didn’t. This – this just isn’t easy for me. I’ll try not to do that again, OK?”
She wiped her eyes with the cuff of her shirt and nodded.
“OK. So where to begin... Well, I was a wreck. I had been for some time. It was all too much. Most of the reasons you know: My mothers sudden death, my father freaking out, my starting at the Academy. I had pressure from everywhere and I simply folded. But there was something else. Something that was worse than everything else. And it was the one thing I could not bring myself to tell you –” she took a deep breath
“Mei Lien, I’m gay.”
I had promised her I’d try to be calm, but that was just too ridiculous.
“And why on earth did you think you could not tell me that?”, I snapped, “did I ever give you the impression I was homophobic?”
“You know, sweetie, for a girl as clever as you, you can be surprisingly thick sometimes.”
“Now, what is that supposed to – Oh. Gods, Aoife, I – you mean you –”
“Yes. – I have been in love with you for several years, Mei. I told myself I would manage. I told myself that it would be enough to be around you, be near you; tried to convince myself that being friends was enough – or better even. And I mean our friendship – it always has been something very special.”
“You should have told me.”
“Maybe. But I was terrified, that I might lose you if I told you. Would our friendship have survived that revelation? I mean, can you really have a friendship with someone, when you are in love with them? Would I have been able to keep deceiving myself that friendship was better, once I declared my love?

“All that had become a terrible, terrible burden. And, well, I was raised an Irish Catholic, Mei. I grew up believing that homosexuality was unnatural, that it was a sin. For a very long time I believed that something about me was wrong, that I was a bad, twisted thing. Every day I tried to convince myself that I felt only friendship for you and that this friendship was something great, special and wonderful – and it was, don’t get me wrong, it was. And then at night I would lie in my bed and fantasize about you and later be so ashamed of myself, I couldn’t sleep.

“My breaking point was the day we bought that dress. You were with me in the cubicle helping me into that gown and it was all I could do not to seize you right there and kiss you. It was there and then, that I decided I had to change my life. I didn’t want to endanger what we had so I decided to try and ‘get you out of my system’.”
“And how did that work out?” I ventured, surprised at that jab of jealousy when I thought of Aoife with another woman.
“It didn’t. Trying to protect her, I hurt the one girl in the world that I love, I am every bit as much in love with her as I have always been, and just how much I have ruined our friendship, only she can tell.”
“Did you find yourself on the way?”
“I believe I did. I know who I am. I know what I want. Moved out from under my fathers roof – not a pleasant story there – and I know I love you. And I have finally learned to say it, out loud.”
“Well, it was not all for naught, then.” I smiled a teary-eyed smile at her and pulled her close.