Excerpt of Amsterdam by Ian McEwan
(Page 6 of 9)
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Then the foreign secretary did an extraordinary thing that quite destroyed Clive's theory about the effects of public office and that in retrospect he was forced to admire. Garmony reached out and, with his forefinger and thumb, caught hold of the lapel of Clive's overcoat and, drawing him close, spoke in a voice that no one else could hear.
"The very last time I saw Molly she told me you were impotent and always had been."
"Complete nonsense. She never said that."
"Of course you're bound to deny it. Thing is, we could discuss it out loud in front of the gentlemen over there, or you could get off my case and make a pleasant farewell. That is to say, fuck off."
The delivery was rapid and urgent, and as soon as it was over Garmony leaned back, beaming as he pumped the composer's hand, and called out to the aide, "Mr. Linley has kindly accepted an invitation to dinner." This last may have been an agreed code, for the young man stepped across promptly to usher Clive away while Garmony turned his back on him to say to the journalists, "A great man, Clive Linley. To air differences and remain friends, the essence of civilized existence, don't you think?"
An hour later Vernon's car, which was absurdly small to have a chauffeur, dropped Clive in South Kensington. Vernon got out to say goodbye.
"Not even a drink."
Clive let himself into the house and stood in the hallway, absorbing the warmth of the radiators and the silence. A note from his housekeeper told him there was a flask of coffee in the studio. Still in his coat, he walked up there, took a pencil and a sheet of manuscript paper, and, leaning against the grand piano, scribbled down the ten descending notes. He stood by the window, staring at the page, imagining the contrapuntal cellos. There were many days when the commission to write a symphony for the millennium was a ridiculous affliction: a bureaucratic intrusion on his creative independence; the confusion about where exactly Giulio Bo, the great Italian conductor, would be able to rehearse the British Symphony Orchestra; the mild but constant irritation of overexcited or hostile press scrutiny; the fact that he had failed to meet two deadlines --the millennium itself was still years away. There were also days like this one, when he thought of nothing but the music and could not stay away. Keeping his left hand, which was still numb from cold, in the pocket of his coat, he sat at the piano and played the passage as he had written it, slow, chromatic, and rhythmically tricky. There were two time signatures, in fact. Then, still with his right hand and at half speed, he improvised the cellos' rising line and played it again several times, with variations, until he was satisfied. He scribbled out the new part, which was at the very top of the cellos' range and would sound like some furious energy restrained. Releasing it later, in this final section of the symphony, would be a joy.
He left the piano and poured some coffee, which he drank at his usual place by the window. Three-thirty, and already dark enough to turn on lights. Molly was ashes. He would work through the night and sleep until lunch. There wasn't really much else to do. Make something, and die. After the coffee he recrossed the room and remained standing, stooped over the keyboard in his overcoat, while he played with both hands by the exhausted afternoon light the notes as he had written them. Almost right, almost the truth. They suggested a dry yearning for something out of reach. Someone. It was at times like this that he used to phone and ask her over, when he was too restless to sit at the piano for long and too excited by new ideas to leave it alone. If she was free, she would come over and make tea, or mix exotic drinks, and sit in that worn-out old armchair in the corner. Either they talked or she made her requests and listened with eyes closed. Her tastes were surprisingly austere for such a party-loving sort. Bach, Stravinsky, very occasionally Mozart. But she was no longer a girl by then, no longer his lover. They were companionable, too wry with each other to be passionate, and they liked to be free to talk about their affairs. She was like a sister, judging his women with far more generosity that he ever allowed her men. Otherwise they talked music or food. Now she was fine ash in an alabaster urn for George to keep on top of his wardrobe.
Reproduced from Amsterdam : A Novel, by Ian McEwan. © 1997 by Ian McEwan, used by permission of the publishers : Doubleday.