A bell announced him. All around violins hung like meat in a butcher.
‘Can I help you?’ the assistant called. She stooped in order to see him as she came down the stairs. At the bottom she smoothed her jacket – she had strong hands: the veins stood out hot with energy and her nails were cut short, not like Tanya’s, which were long and painted coral in the summer.
‘My wife –’ he began, and wiped an awkward hand over his chin. He started again. ‘I’d like to return this.’
‘Is something wrong with it?’ The assistant put it on the sales desk and clicked open the case. ‘It’s a beautiful instrument.’
‘Yes,’ he said, not knowing either way.
‘I remember this sale. Two weeks ago, wasn’t it? Your wife was here for a couple of hours. I played several instruments for her upstairs.’ The woman’s good humour buttoned up.
‘You see, my wife doesn’t play. She thought she might but it wasn’t for her.’ Shards of light fell through the window and across the counter, striking him in the eye. He wondered how this woman, so plain and practical, would have looked at Tanya, with her breathy aura of orchids, and of leaves fluttering in the breeze. The selfishness of beautiful women! How she would have scoffed at him for that: lately she’d seen only the bloating.
The assistant said, ‘I even let her – your wife – take it home for a week’s trial. Strictly, we don’t do that but because it was a high-end piece…’ She made a movement with her hands as if that explained it. ‘Your wife kept it for two weeks.’
‘It really was a mistake. She wasn’t thinking about what it might mean – the practising and what not. So if you could take it back, just this once…’ He heard the note of desperation in his voice.
‘I’ll have to call the manager.’ She went to the back of the shop and picked up the telephone.
He shifted from foot to foot and peered around the place, catching the woody flicker of reds and yellows. It was so like Tanya to leave such a clumsy mess for him.
She’d married at nineteen, not to him, but to her first husband, Roderick. She was Indo-Surinamese, beautiful, and could have had the pick of them. Roderick had adored her at first. They’d moved to England from the Netherlands, had a son, and split up when the kid was four. There was no trouble in the marriage: Roderick had loved her as much as he’d loved his car or his new watch, that was all. The kid lived with her until once, when he was nine, she gave him sleeping pills so she could have an afternoon to herself. He moved back to the Netherlands with his father and the Christmas cards to Tanya had stopped a couple of years after that.
She’d met him, Peter, at thirty-six. She’d always liked pretty things and so she came to him with suitcases of debt, which he’d cleared. After a year she became restless – she’d never stopped feeling like a foreigner in London. She cheated on him once then she took up hobbies instead, a new one every three or four months: she needed the constant passionate fumblings of first love. Towards Peter she was wilful, at times combative, but she had that spark, the toothsome rapture at pretty days. And her caress was there in spontaneously baked pies that she brought to his work at lunchtime. She’d once planned a birthday party for a holidaying niece – she’d put the whole of herself into it until there was a chocolate cake as well as a cream sponge, a bouncing castle and karaoke.
Then a couple of months ago she was diagnosed with thyroiditis. The medicine made her bloat and everyday she’d look in the mirror, her fingers working like scotch tape against her cheeks. ‘I could get this much cut out,’ she’d say.
‘I’ve spoken to the manager,’ the assistant said. ‘At this point a return would be irregular.’
He nodded into his shoes. Then he said, ‘It’s only that this is an irregular situation. My wife…’
‘If she’d come in a week ago…’
‘I can’t have it in the house!’ he snapped.
The assistant’s look shifted as though in search of a security button.
Peter pressed his fingertips yellow against the counter. How to explain? For a couple of months Tanya had been complaining: she was too fat. How could he love her? Then she’d say something about the mistakes she’d made in her life. The next moment everything was everyone else’s fault. He couldn’t keep up. Then she stopped talking to him altogether and he’d been moved into the guestroom. But he couldn’t stand not talking to her, not curling her into him at night.
He’d knocked on the door. She held it open. The violin lay tossed on his side of the bed. He was going to Dusseldorf on business – he wanted to talk first. She said she was tired, that she was going to take a bath. He asked if they could talk when he got back. She turned her head a little to the side: he read it as maybe. When he got back he saw the pallor of the silence before he jimmied open the bathroom door.
He stretched his fingers away from the counter. ‘I don’t care about the money,’ he said.
‘Just take the thing away.’
‘Goddammit!’ He balled his hand into a fist as though he might smash the violin: it was this thing that mocked his love: it had not been enough. But that wasn’t all of it. Why hadn’t he seen what it had meant – that it was her last attempt? The knowledge that he had failed her rattled inside the thing’s hollow body and gleamed dully along the strings. He used to take better care of her.
The assistant waited.
‘I’m very sorry,’ he said. ‘Of course you can’t keep it. It isn’t your fault.’ He put the violin inside the case and made his way to the door.