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VIKTOR’S VIOLIN

By Dan Keeble

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The cracked wind-weathered fingers of Viktor’s left hand swung the time-worn violin under his jaw. The bristles on his aged sagging jowls scratched along the neck rest, as man and instrument found a comfortable position. He picked up the blackened bow and leaned against a ragged military rucksack.

 

At 7.30 a.m., the sound of seagulls and blackbirds carried along the almost empty English shopping precinct. Footsteps of early workers tapped a steady pace, creating a restful overture. Viktor felt the arthritic ache in his elbow as he lifted his bow arm. The night had been unusually damp for late Spring. But neither weather nor fitness would prevent him from starting his day in the way he had done so for years.

 

A narrow strip of low sunlight shot between the shops opposite and drew a baton on the pavement before him. He imagined once again performing on stage at the National Theatre in Prague. Three tiers of red velvet seating, filled with patrons, peered down from their gilded boxes, eagerly awaiting that first note. On lonely chilly nights, he dreamed of going back home to Lubiń. To walk through the woods beside the Zimnica river, or lay on the lawn of the Benedictine Abbey as he did when a child. He had no family left, and it was only 800 miles away, but financially beyond his imagination.

 

The fingers of Viktor’s left hand rested on the strings of the fingerboard, and he acknowledged the command of the sunlit baton to begin.  The clean stirring melody of Massenet’s Meditation filled the precinct. It mingled with the sunlight, echoing from the heights of the stores and warmed the morning. The birds stopped to listen. Viktor’s bow and fingers were lost in the movement. His dark, emotionless eyes were deep-set beneath untrimmed black eyebrows. A heavy black coat overwhelmed his thin frame, with black boots adding to the darkness of the man in the doorway. Only his music bore the sweetness and purity of the soul within.

 

The emotional haunting sound and mournful appearance, evoked visions of grainy black and white films showing hundreds of frightened people stepping down from the Polish railway wagons.

 

Every morning at seven, Mr. Pang from the convenience store opposite took over a flask of coffee and return Viktor’s violin to him. Each night, for two years, he kept it safe for him, to avoid it being stolen while he slept. It was the only treasured thing he now possessed, and the path to an  income. Apart from Yong Pang, the only words he exchanged would be with Jody Holt, the young owner of the seafront cafe, or those kind enough to stop briefly to talk with him. Yong understood why Viktor’s father’s violin meant so much to him. There was no grave in Poland where he could recite the Kaddish and place a stone. The instrument was his only link to him and his lost family.

 

The young lady in the red coat, who dropped a coin every other day, paused and stretched a smile as she watched Viktor’s fingers and bow work in harmony. Her head swayed as she walked on, as though flowing with the music. Even an audience of one brought inner warmth to him.

 

By the time Viktor was ready to hobble along to the Seafarer’s Centre to take a shower, the majority of workers and early shoppers had passed through the precinct. It had been a fruitful few hours. Sunshine always lifts people’s spirits, making them sympathetic and willing to part with their loose change.

 

Once a week, if he hadn’t been robbed of his food money, he would deposit the little of what was left into the bank. He understood the small amounts would take ages to get him back on his feet, so every Friday he went into the betting shop to places a £5 wager on a four horse accumulator. He knew nothing about horse racing and made his selection based on names he associated with his past. Twice before, he had managed to find the first three to make it first past the post.  Realistically, he understood the chances of finding a fourth were extremely rare, but guessed the chances were better than the lottery. So he assigned no importance or hope to it as a way out of his situation. Even though, once again, he had found the first three winners of the horses chosen, he felt no optimism or excitement. Not even after his rough calculation revealed there was already over six thousand pounds riding on the final jockey’s effort. Money had never brought him joy in the way that music had. The last of his selection was appearing at a late afternoon meeting. He had chosen Hurricane because of its links to Polish Airmen who fought alongside RAF Spitfire pilots during WWII.

 

Viktor spent most of the afternoon at the pier, where the owner of the amusement park allowed him to play by the entrance. It always attracted more visitors. The park had only recently opened for the season, and being a half-term holiday meant increased footfall. For two hours he ran through his exhaustive repertoire of Chopin, Stravinsky, Sibelius, and Brahms. The crowd had been large, and despite showing appreciation with their coins, it lifted him more that they lingered to hear him play. Lost in the music, he was carried back to the stage of Warsaw’s Roma Musical Theatre. And the gentle clapping of the surrounding crowd became a crescendo of applause from a packed audience at  the Teatr Wielki in  Lubiń.

 

By four o’clock, the arthritis in Viktor’s elbow meant it was time to rest, and he made his way along the promenade to the cafe. He took his usual seat in the corner overlooking the sea.  Jody Holt shot him a genuine smile  She couldn’t be more than twenty-two, yet despite his unkempt appearance, she always treated him with kindness, and saved his embarrassment when paying for his meals with so many loose coins, by telling him it saved her getting change from the bank. He had seen her many times watching him play at the pier, and she had told him she had taken violin lessons. It often crossed his mind that there was no one to leave his violin to.

 

Viktor rested on the sea wall by a row of beach huts before making his way back to the precinct. Behind him, in one of the huts, a woman was making tea. A shirtless, tanned, middle-aged man was sitting, listening to a radio transmission of a horse-race commentary. He was complaining that the noise of the boiling kettle was drowning out the commentator. When the race finished, he cursed, and Viktor could hear him tearing up what he presumed was a betting slip. He carried on moaning that it was always the favourites that let him down. Angrily, he groaned that he might as well pick them by their names, if it meant an 100/8 outsider like Hurricane was going to live up to its name.

Viktor was still watching the rolling waves fold onto the beach, and for a moment the man’s words didn’t register. When it did, he felt a jolt in his chest. It was as though something had befallen him he was not prepared for, nor could cope with.

 

When he calmed and realised the enormity of twelve and a half times the six thousand or so already accumulated, his first thoughts were not of money, but of returning home to the concert halls, and the Gothic castle in Lubiń.

 

His pace was quicker on his way back to the precinct and the doorway of the empty store. Viktor put his rucksack in the corner and checked that the betting slip had not miraculously found its way out of his deep trouser pocket. It then dawned on him he would have to present himself in the morning at the betting shop with the betting slip. Although nobody else knew of its existence, there was always that chance, like all homeless sleepers, of being robbed at night. He wondered how he could keep it safe until the morning. The thought occurred to him that if he pushed the slip into one of the f  holes of the violin, when Yong returned it to him in the morning, he would tell him of his good fortune and ask him if he would accompany him to the betting shop. Because of the kindness he had always shown, Viktor was sure Yong would help him. When he collected the violin, Yong thought that, for the first time, he detected a small smile on the face of an otherwise sad soul.

 

Many exciting thoughts of Lubiń ran through Viktor’s mind, and he found it difficult to drop into sleep. By one o’clock, he was at that point when the noise of a rowdy drunken group drew closer to him. All rough sleepers dread  nightclub closing time. Many a time he had felt a boot through his layers of clothing, or a can of beer poured over him. In common with most, he drew himself into a foetal position, pretending to be asleep. But this time, it would not protect him.

 

Three young guys stopped and subjected him to the foulest verbal abuse. Their anger rose when they got no response from Viktor. They egged-on each other to kick him violently in his back and legs. It went on for some time. When he struggled up to turn his back away from them, one guy grabbed him by his hair and pulled his head up, while another delivered a kick to the side of his head. After further blows that went on for some time, to his arms and chest, he passed out in agony.

***

Just before seven in the morning, Yong left his store and strolled over with a flask of coffee and the violin. He immediately saw the bloodstained blanket covering Viktor. Pulling it back, he squealed. Viktor was lying on his side, his purple face caked in dried blood from his mouth and nose, with swollen lips and eyes. Yong knelt down horrified, and asked him if he could move. Viktor was struggling for breath. His hands clutched his chest with both hands. My heart, my heart, he gasped.. Then his eyes turned to Yong’s hand, and his last words were, It’s in the violin.

***

Yong Pang knew Viktor had no family or money. He organised a collection among the local stores and those who knew him to pay for a funeral. Only a few traders, the local police officer, Jody, and the chaplin from the Seafarer’s Centre turned up at the crematorium. Yong arranged for a musician to play Meditation,Viktor’s morning opening piece, on his treasured violin. When he finished, Yong took the violin and bow and placed them on Viktor’s coffin. With tearful eyes, he turned to address the small gathering…

 

All of you know how much Viktor loved the music he played. And I need not remind you of what this violin meant to him. As he lay dying, his last words to me were, My heart, it’s in the violin. So I think it is only fitting that we do not separate Viktor from his heart.

 

The mournful sound of the Theme From Schindler's List saddened the air, as the curtains closed around Viktor’s coffin.

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