Elizabeth Martin first saw the two men in black when she exited the British Library one bright July afternoon. She’d spent the morning rearranging pages of notes compiled for the opening chapter of her biography of Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, and was still editing passages in her head as she emerged onto the Euston Road. Sub bass rumble from a passing car stereo broke her concentration and she gazed across the street – and found her eyes drawn directly to them. While the air was heavy with the swelter of a heatwave, they were both done up in dark suits and raincoats. Surrounded by the iridescent t-shirts and sunburned limbs of the King’s Cross crowd, they stood out like two onyx stones in a tropical fish tank.
One was yawning, while the second – taller than his squat companion, hair long and shaggy in contrast to the other’s close-cropped fuzz of greying bristles – was looking directly across the road at her. It reminded Elizabeth of the cover of the album Actually by the Pet Shop Boys. The thought made her chuckle, briefly.
But the staring man, the Chris Lowe of the duo, kept his eyes fixed on hers for three, maybe four seconds while he retrieved a roll-up from behind his ear. As if, Elizabeth thought, he’d been waiting for her.
Then all at once, he glanced down to cup a lighter to the cigarette; his friend spat onto the pavement; a gaggle of teenagers pogoed around them both and into the McDonald’s behind; and a bus lumbered past… And when Elizabeth finally had a clear view again, the men were gone.
It’s impossible to understand how much your parents love you until you have children yourself. Then there’s a slow realisation – when your son or daughter is causing your heart to balloon against your chest with every toothless grin and sonorous burp – that you must have inspired this same devotion yourself, 25 or 30 or 40 years ago, in the hearts of the people you then spent the next 25 or 30 or 40 years treating as embarrassing acquaintances. It can be heartbreaking, this disassociation from your younger self. Viewed through a prism of lived experience, they become a stranger. And, what’s worse, you know your own beloved progeny will soon regard you in the same way, as a spiritual foreigner – and you’ll become an exile in your own land.
Elizabeth thought about this as she walked towards Kings Cross tube station, still peering around in search of the shadowy pair. Her son Isaac, recently sent down from Oxford due to various cocaine-related transgressions, was currently making the transition from weary indulgence to outright contempt. Elizabeth was being patient with him, of course, because his father was only nine months deceased. Losing a parent at such a young age was bound to wreak havoc with the boy’s mental equilibrium (or so said the Vice-Chancellor, explaining to Elizabeth why Isaac was just being kicked out rather than marched to the nearest police station). Nonetheless, the frostiness of their current interactions – where Elizabeth’s attempts at basic information-gathering (“How are you?”, “Would you like some breakfast?”, “Do you think you’ll take a shower this week?”) were met by a Neanderthal concerto of grunts, sighs and muttered insults – was trying her patience.
She had to rein in her responses, muffle the things she really wanted to say as Isaac sneered and swore, because she understood that some of the frustration she was feeling was selfish. When her husband had died – suddenly, painfully (an explosive heart attack), and far too early (he’d just passed 60) – she’d been upset, of course. But also somewhat liberated, as he’d died (suddenly, painfully, and far too early) naked and priapic in the bed of an auburn-haired 27-year-old cellist, with whom he’d been conducting an affair (she found out, after the cellist had rung, hysterical, to ask for help with Henry turning blue beside her) since April the previous year. All at once so many of the things in her life that caused her disquiet – his diminished interest in any physical closeness, his impatience with her talk about the future, his purchase of a formidably expensive gym membership – suddenly made sense. She moved from blaming herself for failing to be more agile in adapting to his whims, to relief that it wasn’t she who was at fault for this chill in their 22-year marriage. It was him. It was all him. The cheating shit.
With relief came a kind of clemency, a mellow forgiveness of herself, for all the guilt she’d felt about being a bad wife, a bad confidant, a bad lover. And forgiveness then gave way to expectation: she was not only blameless, she was owed something. She deserved some kind of emotional reparation. As the man from whom she could extract that reparation was dead, she soon realised that the only person who could now offer her any reward was herself. From expectation, she then moved to liberation. She felt lighter suddenly, as she acknowledged that she’d regained control of her happiness. Her reality was no longer a negotiation with another’s. Her personal fulfilment was no longer – as Sartre would have it – contingent. She could do what the fuck she wanted.
And then Isaac came home.
She loved him, she would remind herself during those protracted mornings when he was slumped in the living room, sockless and gangly, offering nothing more than the occasional murmured assent to her blandishments. He paid so little attention to what was going on beyond the glow of his smartphone that one day Elizabeth ordered an eclectic selection of Thai delicacies from Deliveroo, took in the bags from the clammy cyclist, decanted everything onto plates, and presented it to Isaac as her own work – and none of it registered in the slightest.
She loved him, yes. But there was no use pretending that he wasn’t an obstacle, getting in the way of her discovering what came next – what came next after liberation.
He’d grown up in a house of art, music, ideas: the son of a conductor (and, lately, cheating shit), and a lecturer in English Literature who had decided, in her fifties, to fulfil an ambition of writing non-fiction. And had done so rather successfully. Elizabeth’s debut, a well-reviewed but poor-selling biography of Nicholas Culpepper, was published when Isaac was finishing his A-Levels. However, her second – a new history of Weimar Germany – landed on many broadsheet end-of-year lists (and almost entirely paid the rent for Isaac’s room in the four-floor Victorian house where he spent his final year at Oxford, she would occasionally remind him). In reaction to this upbringing of liberal intellectual exploration, Isaac decided, aged 18, that he wanted to go into politics. Elizabeth and Henry (oh, let’s not say his name, thought Elizabeth, as she headed down the escalators to the tube) were happy to see him commit to anything beyond Fortnite and online pornography. But by his second year, Isaac’s political leanings had moved abruptly rightward, and when he did deign to communicate with his parents, his conversation was of Hayek, Friedman, Thiel; he started to refer to himself as a “classical liberal”; he would respond to Elizabeth’s concerns about public sector cuts with glib references to “market competition” and “trickle-down economics”. He was – Elizabeth thought to herself one evening, a few months after Henry’s death, when she emerged from her study to find Isaac watching Question Time and snort-laughing at an audience member’s condescending comment about immigrants – turning into a bit of a twat.
His political predilections, however unappealing Elizabeth might find them, were not the source of her worries for Isaac, however. If he became a Tory, so be it – it wouldn’t impinge on her ability to embrace the new freedoms Henry’s death had revealed to her. No, the problem was that he was out of his depth. At Oxford, the only people he’d found who shared his worldview were the claret-cheeked, braying public school set, those chosen few set to glide from think tank to spad to assistant whip, thanks to recommendations from well-placed uncles and godfathers. As a lowly state school upstart, Isaac had his work cut out to integrate. His solution was to buy as much cocaine as he could afford from his London connections (which, after the success of Berlin Behaving Badly: A New History Of Weimar Germany, was quite a lot), and share it liberally with the Bullingdon boys.
He was soon spending every other weekend at one or another Cotswold retreat, or Chelsea flat – and even once found himself partying self-consciously at a villa by Lake Como owned by the father (a Conservative Lord) of one of his most appreciative customers. Acceptance by such an elite clique did some fairly heavy damage to Isaac’s malleable young mind, as far as Elizabeth was concerned – more damage, she thought in more cynical moments, than the stuff he was putting up his nose.
Henry was unfazed by these developments. At the time, Elizabeth was of course not aware that her husband’s interest in their son’s radicalisation was in inverse proportion to his interest in the body of the auburn-haired 27-year-old cellist. She found herself baffled by Henry’s blithe dismissal of it all as “just a phase” – this from someone who’d disinvited a colleague from his 40th birthday drinks after finding out the man subscribed to the Spectator. Elizabeth put it down to the fact that Henry was a Blairite, and for him the Tories of Cameron and Osbourne were no great threat to his centre-left beliefs. By the time of Brexit and Boris he was completely disengaged, and couldn’t – or wouldn’t – see that the party his son was now cheerleading for was an entirely different (and, to Elizabeth, far more wretched) beast. Had he lived long enough to see how Brexit would curtail his ability to travel Europe with his orchestra, shagging the cellist in a different enlightened metropole every week, he might have changed his tune. But of course he never thought Brexit would happen. He had too much faith in what he called the “pragmatism of power”, in the essential arse-covering shallowness of the post-Blair generation, to imagine they’d do anything so revolutionary as cut Britain adrift from its continental partners.
Well, we’ve all been left high and dry now, thought Elizabeth as she emerged from the tube at Vauxhall and climbed the steps to catch the overground to Barnes. I’m widowed, and the country’s widowed. Henry had his fun and got out just in time. Now Elizabeth had to carry on somehow, in a changed world, one in which her son regarded his mother’s liberal attitudes with scorn. Oh, let’s not sugarcoat it, she thought: he regarded her with scorn. She was facing a summer, a whole season, of scorn. And if she wanted to rescue the situation, she’d have to put any thoughts of moving on from Henry (whatever that meant in practice) aside. No 27-year-old trombonists for her. She was 58, cuckolded and grief-struck; her agent had serious doubts about the commercial viability of her next book; and her son was a twat.
She looked out of the train window at the sun leering down on West London. Then she pulled her notebook from her bag and began to read.
Alexander Scriabin never knew his mother. She died in 1873 when Scriabin was barely a year old, from tuberculosis contracted while convalescing from a lung infection in Italy. How cruel – thought Elizabeth, as the train rattled past Putney – for this woman to be asphyxiating under the Mediterranean sun, alone, her baby a thousand miles away. Lyubov Petrovna Scriabina had been a fine pianist and composer in her time, having studied at the St Petersburg Conservatory of Music under the tutelage of the great Theodor Leschetizky. Elizabeth liked to imagine the first sounds the foetal Alexander heard were his mother’s recitals – ripples across the amniotic fluid that he’d spend his life chasing. Perhaps, she thought, the grand vision for his final work – the consciousness-shattering Mysterium – was really just a desire to return to the womb, that place where music, motherhood and God all chimed harmonically, infinitely.
It was the Mysterium, of course, that had ensnared Elizabeth – had convinced her that dedicating a couple of years of her life to writing a book about an obscure Russian composer as the follow-up to a surprise bestseller was not a career-killing proposition. Henry had introduced her to Scriabin (she was increasingly irritated to remember) when the BBC had approached him about putting on a performance of Scriabin’s symphony Prometheus. The final work Scriabin completed before his death in 1915, Prometheus was a wild, dissonant affair accompanied by a light-emitting organ that would douse the audience in colours corresponding to particular keys and melodies.
Notoriously difficult to execute, Prometheus had been put on in its intended form only a handful of times in the hundred years since its conception. By the time the BBC came to Henry the pandemic was receding, but the shell-shocked public were still wary about venturing to concert halls. For some reason, the Beeb’s new Head of Arts believed that exhuming Scriabin’s atonal whimsy was just the thing to get the Radio 3 set back in the private boxes. Henry’s opinion of the work – “plinky-plonky nonsense gussied up with a lightshow – Jean-Michel Jarring, you might say,” he’d chortled at Elizabeth – made him only slightly less enthusiastic than usual to take the corporation’s cash. In the end, it was not to be: the Daily Mail got wind (“Beeb Splurge on Russian Dirge”), the DG decided that a night of Land of Hope and Glory featuring cameos by various chart stars would be preferable, and Henry went back to his side hustle teaching kids to play Bach on the piano via Zoom.
In the course of their conversations, Henry had told Elizabeth about Scriabin’s unfinished folly – the Mysterium. Where Prometheus was a tentative experiment in multimedia, the Mysterium was intended as a full-on assault on the senses. Elizabeth would realise, later, that Henry had only the vaguest understanding of what the Mysterium was all about. But the few things he did know set her mind ablaze. It was a piece intended to usher in the end of the world, he told her, a sort of Wagnerian reverie that would be performed for days on end in the foothills of the Himalayas, with music, dancing, lights, smells – a cacophony of the senses. “Somehow,” said Henry, “by the end of it all the spectacle would be so powerful that reality would be transformed, and we’d all become higher beings or something.” He’d paused then, and smirked (that bloody smirk). “But before it happened, the silly bugger got a spot on his lip which turned septic, and died. Imagine: death by pimple.”
Elizabeth had pressed him for more, but Henry was dismissive. Later, during her research, she came across an account from Mikhail Fabianovich Gnessin, one of Scriabin’s contemporaries, of a dinner party where the composer sermonised at length on the details of his grand vision. Gnessin’s response echoed Henry’s:
‘Someone asked Scriabin a question about Mysterium. He began to speak, gradually becoming more excited by his own dear fantasy: the changing race, world cataclysms, and the celebratory destruction of the present man to the sound of Scriabin’s music. At length he explained that what would happen over the six, or probably seven days of this Mysterium, was the destruction (and rebirth?) of the human race. Everyone listened, certainly, reacting differently to what he was saying, but it seemed that most were sympathetic to the prophetic whispers of the extremely talented musician. I remember Il’in turned to his neighbor and said “what a terrible look in his eyes!” And Scriabin kept talking and talking: “in such-and-such day mankind will better understand what occurred on its historical path; in such-and-such…” – I don’t really remember what else there was…’
Both of them, a century apart, made it sound ludicrous – but Elizabeth was entranced. While Henry forgot all about Scriabin and returned to admonishing surly eleven-year-olds about their fingering technique, Elizabeth began to Google. And the more she read, the more determined she became to unravel the mysteries of the Mysterium.
As she walked away from the train station across Barnes Common, Elizabeth forced herself to put thoughts of her research aside and focus again on reality: on Isaac. As punishment for being sent down, he was now locked down – forbidden to leave the house except to see a few vetted local friends, and curfewed. His only way out, Elizabeth had explained to him (or rather, explained to the door of his bedroom which he’d moments earlier slammed in her face), was to get a job. There was a practical, as well as ethical, reason for this, though Elizabeth was careful not to go into details. With probate still unresolved due to Henry’s disregard for such grown-up necessities as organising a will, the Martin household (such as it was) now depended on Elizabeth’s earnings – and after the initial burst of sales, the royalties from Berlin Behaving Badly were evaporating. Elizabeth was still negotiating an advance for her follow-up on Scriabin, and the once-distant prospect of selling the creaking Barnes house in which she’d lived for 20 years, where she thought she’d happily spend the second half of her life of late-blossoming literary renown, was suddenly glaring her in the face. Isaac’s allowance, she’d informed him solemnly, was seriously imperilled.
If there had been any advantage for Isaac in ingratiating himself with the Etonians and Wykehamists, now was the time for him to make good on it. Whatever obscurely-funded Institute for Strategic Policy Research Studies would take him, he should find a way to be taken. Let him dive headlong into the shark tank, thought Elizabeth. However detrimental it was to his already stunted compassion for humanity, it was bound to pay better than Penguin.
Elizabeth found herself sighing at her own cynicism as she turned the key in the front door lock. Is this what she really wanted for her son? He was supposed to be an artist, or a doctor, or… God, a snooker player, whatever – not some apparatchik of political gamesmanship. But then, she realised sadly, what choice did he have, with parents like his? An academic pursuing an obsession with a story no one wanted to read, and a dead conductor who’d lavished his meagre earnings on a girl only six years older than his son. It was enough to turn anyone into a Thatcherite.
“Isaac? I’m home.”
The house was quiet. Henry had filled it with noise, but now it was a just a place where thoughts went unsaid. But still, Elizabeth could usually expect to hear the chirrup of TikTok or the spasms of Netflix.
“Are you here?”
I hope you are, she thought. She hadn’t spoken to anyone all day, apart from the cashier at the British Library cafe. Henry was gone, and all of that easy, mundane conversation, those sound waves that bounced off the walls and billowed past her body, proving she was real – all of that was gone too.
She stood in the hallway and called him on her mobile. It took a few seconds to connect, and then she heard the trill of his phone from upstairs. It went to voicemail.
“This is Zack. Leave a message.”
He’d started calling himself Zack when he went up to Oxford. Some sweet, naive desire to ‘reinvent’ himself with a new crew (no one else from his school had managed to secure a place). Clearly, thought Elizabeth as she climbed the stairs, he’d not changed the message in the intervening three years, since he was very much going by ‘Isaac’ now. He’d forgotten all about it. No one called him, apart from her. No one under 40 made phone calls at all anymore.
Elizabeth moved down the landing towards the bedroom, past a wall of photos illuminating a life that now looked, to Elizabeth, like someone else’s. She felt as if she’d been hit on the head, and woken with amnesia, and these pictures were intended as aids to piece together a forgotten past. Here was one: a woman who looked a lot like her, with her arms wrapped around a pale skinny child in shorts and nothing else, in a garden or park somewhere, both caught mid-cackle by an unseen photographer. Here, another: the woman again, and the boy – now older – and a man making a stupid face, all three of them standing in front of a Christmas tree. Who was she, thought Elizabeth, who was that woman? I don’t recognise her.
In every photo, there was Isaac. Blond-haired, then darker; small and chubby, then tall and lean; wrestling with his father on the floor, then towering above him; bright-eyed and happy, then gazing off to the side, diffident. By the last photo – hanging wonkily by Isaac’s bedroom door, taken at a party Elizabeth and Henry had held just before he’d left them for university – he was looking ever more like his father: the deep-set eyes, the furrowed brow. And looking ready to leave, to get away, to be ‘Zack’, or whoever – someone else, unburdened.
He was an only child. Elizabeth regretted that. They’d tried so hard before having him – Elizabeth suffering a miscarriage, then Henry plunging into depression in his early thirties and spending a couple of years on pills that rendered him flaccid and frustrated. Isaac finally arrived when Elizabeth was 37; she didn’t believe she would ever experience happiness like it again.
No answer. She placed her ear against the door and listened. Music. A phrase, then it stopped and repeated. I heard there was a secret chord – scratch – I heard there was a secret chord… Leonard Cohen. ‘Hallelujah’, on vinyl. Isaac had asked for a record player for his birthday, a couple of months after Henry’s death. Elizabeth had been surprised. Henry had given up on records and CDs years before, having become an evangelising convert to digital streaming. She remembered when he’d pulled her over to his laptop and scrolled through Spotify – “Everything Beethoven ever wrote, from every orchestra you could ask for, all available at the click of a button!” He’d beamed at her, face lit up with astonishment. She loved him in those moments, when his passion made him boyish, returned him to the man he was when she first met him, in the Dive Bar in Chinatown (she was a UCL fresher, he was about to graduate from the London College of Music) and he’d plied her with rum and Coke and talked about himself for two hours, but in a way that made her feel like she was a co-conspirator, the only person he could trust.
Inevitably, Isaac revolted. The digital conversion of music made it sterile, apparently. The only way to listen was analogue. There was much talk of “warmth” and “dynamic range” and “authenticity”. It might have been an affectation, but Elizabeth was cheered by it. Her son wasn’t wholeheartedly embracing the technologic mantra of the age. He could see there was another way.
I heard there was a secret chord – skip.
Elizabeth knocked again, harder. Still no answer.
“Five second warning: I’m coming in.”
She paused. Then pushed the door open, slowly.
The first thing she saw was his bed, and the album sleeve placed on the mattress, and the smear of white powder, and the discarded five pound note that was almost imperceptibly unfurling by the pillow. Her eyes turned to the record player, where Cohen’s Various Positions looped under the spasming stylus.
Then she saw him, her lovely boy: splayed out on the floor, his nose speckled with blood, the tip of his tongue poking past his teeth and dipping into the vomit pooling under his mouth.
I heard there was a secret chord…