There’s an opera in my head. It’s a perpetual opera that plays night and day. At the moment, the villain is singing a low E flat, rough and purring like an antichrist, and traffic rumbles along in the background in menacing polyphony waiting to dissolve in the scream of a car alarm. I conduct ever so slightly with the fingers of my left hand, horns enter…now! The timpani tut tut tut of a passerby and the far off wailing wowwow of an ambulance rushing away in the key of D major provide the harmony.
Is this normal? Would you call it normal to experience the world this way? How would I (or you) even know? Filter my experience through a thousand other brains and what would they hear? I know from experience that what makes me laugh is just as likely to make you cry.
Not that it matters. Normal or not, the truth is that other people hear noise, I hear music.
My parents don’t hear anything at all. My adoptive parents. I don’t know who my biological father is, or my mother either, which is strange. How must it feel for a baby to rock for nine months, heavy with symbiosis, until one day it is pushed out into a shrill white world, and there, at the end of the road, be given away to strangers? I don’t know how it felt to me. My eyes were barely open, my brain blank with fear, my heart too tiny and earnest to grasp this turn of events.
I have a picture of her in my head. Not a real picture, of course. In my head she is tall, like me. But her hair is dark, and her eyes too, so that even in my imagination there is a gulf between us, a chasm that leaves me unexplained and inexplicable.
I listen to the city’s hum as I cross the road, insert my ticket (flickflick) into the machine and step onto the escalator, down into the ground to get out of the rain. Like the ants, or perhaps Orpheus. The melodies flow in my veins.
I can hear a lovely exhaling deep vibration down here in the underground, like a tuba playing its lowest notes, and I wonder whether it’s the sound made by the centre of the earth, a distant song floating up through the tunnels of the Northern Line.
Over the years, I’ve been tempted to conduct a world-wide search of violinists or horn players or opera singers. Surely one of them would recognize me, I’m easy to pick out of a crowd. Somewhere, someone would claim my white blonde hair, my pale, pale skin, my pale blue eyes. People never fail to ask if I’m adopted, unless they have perfect manners.
As we thunder through the tunnels, in the background I can here a high E shrieking, not a pretty note, but satisfying. Wikki-takkah wikki-takkah wikki-takkah wikki-takkah. The train pulls into the station, two notes — a major descending fourth — precedes the closing of the doors. I’m conducting in 2:2 now, swingy and danceable. I wish I could get the world to play with me, follow my beat, instead of always having to fall into the powerful sway of its syncopation. Sometimes it makes my head hurt to listen.
I should be a cellist. I’ve been told that quite spontaneously by people who know even less than I do about my past. I have the look, they say, by which I guess they mean strange, mermaidy, otherworldly. It seems a shame to waste looks like mine on someone who doesn’t play the cello, or possibly the harp. But my father is tone deaf and my mother distracted, and I never demanded a violin, or a harp, or a horn. Of course we have a piano, like all nice families, and though it’s out of tune I can play it perfectly well. All I have to do is place my fingers lightly on the keys and they know where to go. If I stop thinking and let my hands do what they will, I can play what I’ve heard. This makes people uncomfortable because it is not natural. Except, of course, for me.
I used to think that everyone was the same. When I was a child, people would wind up music boxes or toys to tinkle out graceless little tunes when the world was already humming with thirty or forty melodies. What other people called silence shouted at me and for years I wore a thick felt hat, even in summer, to filter the sound. My teachers told me to take it off, and I did. I’ve never looked for trouble, until now.
I almost never leave the house. It worries my family, but I’m happy in my room, reading books and lying very still, listening to the sweetly muffled world. I listen to the music in the walls.
Noise is leaking out of the headphones worn by the man on my left. I can identify the noise from the bass line. Listen hard and you’ll hear it too – the rhythm even and metallic. Robot noise. When a person plays you can feel his face in the sound, the furrow of a brow, the concentration in the jaw; the melody mutters and stutters like a heartbeat, it has its own life. That song is dead. If I had a switch that would shut him down, I would. Eight stops to go.
Everyone I know exists in a particular key. My sister, for instance. No matter how she dresses or acts or works at school or at ballet, everything about her settles in the key of F major. One flat. It suits her. Not too complicated, not too interesting, but not C major either. Not without redeeming characteristics. She wasn’t adopted. We’re eight months apart in age, Irish twins, a few thousand years apart in everything else. We mostly ignore each other. She wants to be an actress or a pop-star, like her best friend, and her second best friend, and her third best friend. I would like to know who I am before I decide what to be.
My father is A major: strong and bright with no dark undertones, nothing hidden or suspicious, no melody that doubles back when you aren’t looking. When I was little, he used to take me (not her) to the café near the football stadium on Saturday mornings and order me a full English breakfast with bacon not sausage while he read the paper and drank coffee. English breakfast is still my favourite food, even when the eggs are too greasy or the bread is fried. It can get me through a whole day, so I don’t feel hungry again until the next morning, when I want to have it all over again.
He doesn’t understand, though I’ve tried to explain, but this doesn’t interfere with the love I feel for him. He loves cars. I have no idea what he feels when he looks at a new car, though I can hear the music of it, the soft, slightly rough flicker of an engine that hasn’t been driven-in. I can hear the long shining curve of untouched metal, hear it as a glissando, ascending, sparkling, slightly staccato, violins. I don’t know why, that’s just how it happens. New cars play Schumann. Old cars play Charlie Mingus.
Over the years, my family and my teachers have worried about me. One doctor wrote: “The patient assigns unusual significance or meaning to normal events and holds fixed (false) beliefs. She hears internal sounds and experiences other sensations not connected to an obvious source.” I know he wrote this because he sent a copy of the letter to my parents.
But what did he mean about not connected to an obvious source? How much more obvious can it be? The handicap is not mine, it belongs to him and everyone like him. They are the ones who are disconnected. Their voices rise in a chorus, a hundred strong, all singing from a similar but not identical piece of music. A hundred voices, all off-key. And because they’re tone deaf, they call me a freak.
I clutch my precious piece of paper. There is no photograph clipped neatly to one corner, as I always imagined there would be. A name, an address, a date, a time. And that’s all. Yet even from these bare words, sounds flow, the sound of a voice, sweet and dark and far away. The key is C sharp major, seven sharps that speak, singsong: (F)orget the (C)ouple who (D)elivered the (G)irl from (A)wful (E)arly (B)etrayal.
Three more stops.
I love my family for choosing me when they didn’t have to, for not throwing back the peculiar creature they discovered (too late) they’d fostered, for standing by me, stalwart, unquestioning, despite how many questions they must have. I love how much they try to understand, despite seventeen years without real progress.
Last stop. The doors swoosh open and my fellow passengers and I hear an announcement, recorded, Mind the Gap: E, A, C-sharp. E, A, C-sharp. E, A, C-sharp. You’d have to be deaf not to hear it. The voice over the tannoy says something nobody can understand, but I’m humming the words as I step into the lift.
The cold air is a relief. I open my coat to it and walk through streets chaotic with symphony, a Charles Ives scene with bands of players marching at me from all directions. Schoolboys, housewives, men in suits, bicycle couriers, children, babies, old ladies. Mothers and fathers. The noise is exuberant, glorious, crashing with life. My fingers twitch, my breath trails swirls of cold January smoke, and then, once I’ve found the rhythm for myself (a complex, changeable beat), I try as usual to shape the world’s dance, tell each part when to come in with the purposeful sweep of my invisible baton.
I check the address once more. This is the building and the number and the street. I wonder what makes a person act after years of inaction. I wonder at her decision to leave me. Didn’t she regret the emptiness where a child was supposed to be? Perhaps she filled up her sad soul and her lonely hours with music and danced away from me a little more each year, waltzing stately and calm, or whirling in circles like a dervish.
I buzz the door (A-flat), wait to hear the click, turn my feet into a metronome and count the stairs out in tidy measures, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4. I am not afraid exactly, but I can feel each hair prickling erect on my skin.
And then I stop, because what I hear is so exactly what I want to hear: A storm, driving, unruly; a roomful of singing voices. The voices are wild and desperate, beautiful as swans.
All this I can hear drifting down the wide old staircase as I make my way slowly to the top.
When I get there, the door is ajar, and I lean against it. The storm has begun to abate and the guests throw themselves to the ground, relieved to be alive. Through the open door I can see a woman, though not her face. She is miles away, or so it seems at first. An enormous shining black wall hides her from me, all of her except her two feet, feet that could belong to anyone. The woman is making the great inanimate beast sing a song as familiar to me as the sound of my own breath. The music alternately whispers and thunders, passionate and frightened. She knows I have arrived but is not yet ready to see me, so she greets me like this, in the language we both understand. I circle round to her profile and in the movement of her hands I can hear her voice. It fills me with love and fury. For once there is no room for music in my head, the music is all around me, all the instruments playing together, sweeping me up in their embrace, murmuring, shouting, full of explanations, loaded with lost history and drowned words, more expressive than a touch or a glance or a shared past.
I was wrong. She is pale like me, and we are together for only the second time in both of our lives, her blood pounding thick and glorious in my veins. She is playing Beethoven. As I advance across the room to her, every fibre of my being sings.