Music was the answer to everything in life, or so I used to think. If you were happy, music could make you shout, dance, jump, and celebrate all the good things in your life. And if you were sad, music could provide comfort: songs had the power of letting you know that you were not alone in your suffering. In the past, I could always find the perfect tune to fit the mood – any mood. But last spring, something had happened, something that rocked my world so profoundly that I was beginning to wonder if things would ever be the same again.
As I stood by the open grave, waiting for the casket containing my mother to be lowered, it felt as though nothing could make my grief bearable. But when one of my mother’s colleagues picked up her violin and began to play the melancholy notes of Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in ‘D major’, Mum’s favourite composition, the deep pain that gripped me felt unbearable. It was the first time in my 21 years that music had failed to ease the pain. Reflecting back, I realise now that it made perfect sense, as Mum was the person who had opened the world of music to me in the first place. She was the one who had placed me on the piano stool as a toddler and had gently guided my little fingers over the smooth keyboard, teaching me my first tune. And now she was gone, it felt as though the music had died within me, too.
As the last notes resonated over the small gathering and rose up to the leafy canopy of venerable oaks lining the cemetery, Amy took a step closer, as though sensing my despair, and squeezed my hand. Amy was more than just my best friend; she was like a sister to me. But of all the people assembled there that day, Amy was the person I was most trying to avoid, because I was afraid to let go. Just that little squeeze from Amy’s hand had been enough of a trigger. I started to cry. Although the tears brought a welcome release of some of the pain I had been bottling up, I was worried that, once I’d started, I may never be able to stop.
The vicar began to pray in a monotone voice and I kept my sunglasses trained firmly on the ground in front of my feet. Not only did I not want to witness the slow descent of the casket, but I also had no desire to meet my father’s gaze. He had some nerve showing up here, today, after all these years, I thought angrily. I resolved not to address him as Dad but by his first name, Tom, to make sure he knew how I felt about him.
As soon as the funeral was over, I turned to go. However, Tom had somehow managed to plant himself right in front of me, without me noticing.
He awkwardly attempted to pat my shoulder. At least he didn’t try to hug me. I instantly recoiled, taking a step back.
Heather…’ Tom’s eyes looked red, as if he’d been crying. The hypocrite. ‘If there’s anything you need…’
‘I’ll be sure to ask anyone but you!’ I snapped, glaring at him.
Tom opened his mouth, then closed it again, apparently lost for words. I didn’t give him a chance to regain his voice. Turning on my heel, I marched off, without looking back. I was close to the cemetery exit when I heard a voice behind me.
‘Heather! Wait up!’ Amy was running, trying to catch up with me.
‘It’s fine, you don’t need to come, Amy.’
‘But I want to!’ Amy insisted.
‘Look, I just need some time alone, okay?’ I tried to explain, as gently as I could, then quickly turned and walked off, not wanting to get drawn into a conversation.
Right now my home life, such as it was, had been snatched from under my feet and this was something that no one could put right with kind words or cups of tea. I needed some time alone to come to terms with my new reality. By the time I reached the City and was brushing past busy office workers, my grief was gradually replaced by anger. How dare my father show his face today! And why did he have to bring Mike, my half-brother, whom I barely knew? Where was Tom when Mum was ill and needed his support? I knew, of course, the answers to all those questions. Tom hadn’t cared enough to stay and look after Mum when she needed him most. He was too busy raising a new family.
In my rage I was taking longer strides than usual and streets and squares seemed to fly past. In a short space of time I had covered quite a distance. As I neared the South Bank, the sounds of B-boys performing reached me. An admiring crowd had gathered around them. I envied the group of passers-by – they seemed as though they hadn’t a care in the world. I wished I, too, was able to pause and let a street performance entertain me. But I felt that nothing could ever make me forget what had just happened.
Amy’s mother had offered to take care of the catering for a reception at our place after the funeral, but I had declined. The funeral was difficult enough without having to extend to a reception in my own home and endure people’s pitying stares. Cutting across Covent Garden and Soho, I was soon abreast with Regent’s Park after which it was only a five-minute walk to our apartment. Our apartment. Such a simple expression, yet it was no longer true. It was my apartment. Not that it had ever been ‘ours’ in the sense of owning it. Mum had always rented, as she couldn’t afford a mortgage in our neighbourhood as a single parent, and she refused to move out to the suburbs, claiming they were the death knell to creativity and life. No wonder Tom moved there once he left us, I thought.
I unlocked the front door and stood in the doorway for a moment, reluctant to enter. The place seemed quieter than usual, even though my mother hadn’t been in the apartment for several weeks, as she had spent her last days in hospital. Taking a tentative step into the hallway, the wooden floorboards creaked. I felt a shiver run down my spine. It finally hit me – I was all alone in this world. A feeling of utter exhaustion swept over me. It had been a gruelling past six months, having to rush back and forth between the apartment, music school and the hospital, and I was chronically under-rested. Numb, I walked into my bedroom and threw myself on the bed. I must have immediately fallen into a deep sleep because I couldn’t recall doing anything or thinking about anything when I eventually woke up.
The first thing I did was check the time on my mobile screen. It was eight o’clock in the evening. I must have slept for about five or six hours, although it felt much longer. I didn’t bother opening the text messages; there were nine new messages and two voicemails. They could all wait. Still feeling very groggy, I dragged myself to the living room and switching on the TV. I desperately needed to fill the room with voices and sounds. The TV was tuned to the BBC News Channel.
Wrapping a throw around me, I curled up on the sofa, not paying too much attention to the news anchor until one detail struck me. I thought I heard the woman mention the day as Friday and it occurred to me that it was quite a mistake for a news programme to give the wrong day. I thought nothing more of it until the same news item came back again on the agenda; once again, the anchor stressed the day as Friday, this time even stating the actual calendar date.
Confused, I pressed the digital information button on the remote, which brought up the settings, including time and the date. I now sat up, not believing what I was seeing – it was, indeed Friday, yet the funeral had taken place on Thursday! I calculated that I must have slept for thirty hours straight. Surprisingly, I didn’t feel hungry or even thirsty. It was as though my body had simply shut down, ceasing to require its usual fuel. People had warned me about the process of grieving, telling me it could manifest in all manner of guises, but I hadn’t expected this sort of a reaction. Switching channels, I couldn’t settle on any one programme, so I got up to make a cup of cocoa. As I finished drinking it, I returned to bed, still feeling tired. I preferred sleep to being awake. My mind didn’t want to accept my new reality. It was easier to hide away in the safety net of slumber.
I slept for most of that first week following the funeral. Not once did I leave the apartment. I would wake up, get something to drink, force some dry cereal into myself and watch TV for an hour or so before retiring to bed for another long stretch. This routine suited me for a while. I didn’t have to think, feel, talk or explain myself. I had purposely switched my phone off, unplugged the landline and wasn’t checking my email. I had effectively tuned out.