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Night Music, Page 2

John Connolly

  “Solitary business, writing, or so I would imagine.”

  “It does tend to be, yes.”

  “You’re not married?”



  “No,” said Mr. Berger, then added, “not at the moment.”

  He didn’t want Inspector Carswell to think that there might be anything odd or unsavory about his bachelor existence.


  Carswell drew deeply on his cigarette.

  “Do you miss her?”

  “Miss who?”

  “Your mother.”

  Mr. Berger considered it an odd question to ask, but answered nonetheless.

  “Of course,” he said. “I would visit her when I could, and we spoke on the telephone once a week.”

  Carswell nodded, as if this explained a lot.

  “Must be strange, coming to a new town and living in the house in which your mother died. She passed away at home, didn’t she?”

  Mr. Berger thought that Inspector Carswell seemed to know a lot about his mother. Clearly, he had not just been asking about a missing woman during his time in Glossom.

  “Yes, she did,” he replied. “Forgive me, Inspector, but what has this got to do with the incident on the line?”

  Carswell took the cigarette from his mouth and examined the burning tip, as though some answer might be found in the ash.

  “I’m beginning to wonder if you might not have been mistaken in what you saw,” he said.

  “Mistaken? How can one be mistaken about a suicide?”

  “There is no body, sir. There’s no blood, no clothing, nothing. We haven’t even been able to find the red bag that you mentioned. There’s no sign that anything untoward happened on the track at all. So . . .”

  Carswell took one last drag on his cigarette, then dropped it on the dirt and ground it out forcefully with the heel of his shoe.

  “Let’s just say that you were mistaken, and leave it at that, shall we? Perhaps you might like to find some other way to occupy your evenings, now that winter is setting in. Join the bridge club, or take up singing in the church choir. You might even find a young lady to walk out with. What I’m saying is, you’ve had a traumatic time of it, and it would be good for you not to spend so many hours alone. That way, you’ll avoid making mistakes of this nature again. You do understand me, don’t you, sir?”

  The implication was clear. Being mistaken was not a crime, but wasting police time was. Mr. Berger climbed down from the stile.

  “I know what I saw, Inspector,” he said, but it was all that he could do to keep the doubt from creeping into his voice, and his mind was troubled as he took the path back to his little cottage.


  It should come as no surprise to learn that Mr. Berger slept little that night. Over and over he replayed the scene of the woman’s demise, and although he had not witnessed the actual moment of impact, still he saw and heard it in the silence of the bedroom. To calm himself, he had taken a large glass of his late mother’s brandy upon his arrival home, but he was not used to spirits and the alcohol sat ill with him. He grew delirious in his bed, and so often did the woman’s death play out before him that he began to believe that this evening was not the first time he had been present at her passing. A peculiar sense of déjà vu overcame him, one that he was entirely unable to shrug off. Sometimes, when he was ill or feverish, a tune or song would lodge itself in his mind. So entrenched would its hooks become that it would keep him from sleep, and he would be unable to exorcise it until the sickness had passed. Now he was having the same experience with his vision of the woman’s death, and its repetitive nature was leading him to believe that he had already been familiar with the scene before he was present at it.

  At last, thankfully, weariness overcame him and he was able to rest, but when he woke the next morning that nagging feeling of familiarity remained. He put on his coat and returned to the scene of the previous evening’s excitement. He walked the rough trail, hoping to find something that the police might have missed, a sign that he had not been the victim of an overactive imagination—a scrap of black cloth, the heel of a shoe, or the red bag—but there was nothing.

  It was the red bag that bothered him most of all. The red bag was the thing. With his mind unfogged by alcohol—although, in truth, his head still swam slightly in the aftermath—he grew more and more certain that the suicide of the young woman reminded him of a scene in a book: no, not just a scene, but perhaps the most famous scene of locomotive-based self-immolation in literature. He gave up his physical search and decided to embark on a more literary one.

  He had long ago unpacked his books, although he had not yet found shelves for them all, his mother’s love of reading not matching his own, thus leading to her preference for large swathes of bare wall that she had seen fit to adorn only with cheap reproductions of sea views. There was still more room for his volumes than there had been in his own lodgings, due in no small part to the fact that the cottage had more floor space than his flat, and all a true bibliophile needs for his storage purposes is a horizontal plane. He found his copy of Anna Karenina sandwiched in a pile on the dining room floor between War and Peace and Master and Man and Other Parables and Tales, the latter in a nice Everyman’s Library edition from 1946 about which he had forgotten, and which almost led him to set aside Anna Karenina in favor of an hour or so in its company. Good sense quickly prevailed, although not before he had put Master and Man on the dining table for further examination at a more convenient time. There it joined a dozen similarly blessed volumes, all of which had been waiting for days or weeks for their hour to come at last.

  He sat in an armchair and opened Anna Karenina (Limited Editions Club, Cambridge, 1951, signed by Barnett Freedman, unearthed at a jumble sale in Gloucester and acquired for such a low price that Mr. Berger had later made a donation to charity in order to salve his conscience). He flipped through the pages until he found Chapter XXXI, which began with the words “A bell sounded . . .” From there he read on quickly but carefully, traveling with Anna past Piotr in his livery and top-boots, past the saucy conductor and the woman deformed, past the dirty hunchback muzhik until finally he came to this passage:

  She was going to throw herself under the first car as its center came opposite where she stood. Her little red travelling-bag caused her to lose the moment; she could not detach it from her arm. She awaited the second. A feeling like that she had experienced once, just before taking a dive in the river, came over her, and she made the sign of the cross. This familiar gesture called back to her soul a whole series of memories of her youth and childhood; and suddenly the darkness which hid everything from her was torn asunder. Life, with its elusive joys, glowed for an instant before her. But she did not take her eyes from the car; and when the center, between the two wheels, appeared, she threw away her red bag, drawing her head between her shoulders, and, with outstretched hands, threw herself on her knees under the car. For a second she was horror-struck at what she was doing.

  “Where am I? What am I doing? Why?”

  She tried to get up, to draw back; but something monstrous, inflexible, struck her head, and threw her on her back.

  “Lord, forgive me all!” she murmured, feeling the struggle to be in vain.

  A little muzhik was working on the railroad, mumbling in his beard.

  And the candle by which she had read the book that was filled with fears, with deceptions, with anguish, and with evil, flared up with greater brightness than she had ever known, revealing to her all that before was in darkness, then flickered, grew faint, and went out forever.

  Mr. Berger read the passage twice, then leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. It was all there, right down to the detail of the little red bag, the bag that the woman on the track had cast aside before the express had hit her, just as Anna had thrown away her bag before she was struck. The woman’s gestures in her final moments had also been similar to Anna’s: she, too, had draw
n her head between her shoulders and stretched out her arms, as though the death to come was to take the form of crucifixion rather than iron and wheels. Why, even Mr. Berger’s own memory of the incident had been couched in similar phrases.

  “My God,” said Mr. Berger to the listening books, “perhaps the inspector was right, and I have been spending too much time alone with only novels for company. There can be no other excuse for a man believing that he has seen the climactic scene of Anna Karenina reenacted on the Exeter to Plymouth railway.”

  He placed the volume on the arm of the chair and went to the kitchen. He was briefly tempted to reach for the brandy again, but no particular good had come of their previous shared moments, and so he opted for the routine of making a big pot of tea. When all was in place, he took a seat at the kitchen table and drank cup after cup until he had drained the pot dry. For once he did not reach for a book, nor did he distract himself with the Times’ crossword, still left untried at this late stage of the morning. He simply stared at the clouds, and listened to birdsong, and wondered if he was not, after all, going gently insane.

  •  •  •

  Mr. Berger did not read anything else that day. His two examinations of Chapter XXXI of Anna Karenina remained his sole contact with the world of literature. He could not recall a day when he had read less. He lived for books. They had consumed every spare moment since the revelation in childhood that he could tackle a novel alone without his mother having to read it to him. He recalled his first halting encounters with the Biggles stories of W. E. Johns, remembering how he had struggled through the longer words by breaking them up into their individual syllables, so that one difficult word became two easier ones. Ever since then, books had been his constant companions. He had, perhaps, sacrificed real friendships to these simulacra, because there were days when he had avoided his chums after school or ignored their knocking on his front door when his parents’ house was otherwise empty, taken an alternative route home or stayed away from the windows so that he could be sure that no football game or exploration of orchards would get in the way of finishing the story that had gripped him.

  In a way, books had also been partly responsible for his fatal tentativeness with the girl from Accounts. She seemed to read a little—he had seen her with a Georgette Heyer novel, and the occasional Agatha Christie mystery from the library—but he had the sense that it was not a passion with her. What if she insisted that they spend hours at the theater, or the ballet, or shopping, simply because it meant that they would be “doing things together”? That was, after all, what couples did, wasn’t it? But reading was a solitary pursuit. Oh, one could read in the same room as someone else, or beside them in bed at night, but it rather presumed that an agreement had been reached about such matters, and the couple in question consisted of a pair of like-minded souls. It would be a disaster to find oneself embroiled with the sort of person who read two pages of a novel and then began humming, or tapping her fingers to attract attention, or, God help us, fiddling with the dial on the wireless. The next thing one knew, she’d be making “observations” on the text in hand, and once that happened there would be no peace forever after.

  But as he sat alone in the kitchen of his deceased mother’s house, it struck Mr. Berger that he had never troubled himself to find out the views of the girl in Accounts on the subject of books or, indeed, ballet. Deep inside, he had been reluctant to disturb his ordered lifestyle, a world in which he rarely had to make a more difficult decision than selecting the next book to read. He had lived his life at one remove from the world around him, and now he was paying the price in madness.


  In the days that followed, Mr. Berger subsisted largely on newspapers and magazines of an improving nature. He had almost convinced himself that what he had seen on the track was a psychological anomaly, some form of delayed reaction to the grief he had experienced at his mother’s death. He noticed that he was the object of peculiar looks, both poorly concealed and unashamedly open, as he went about his business in the town, but that was to be expected. He did hope that the town’s memory of the unproductive police search might fade eventually. He had no desire to be elevated to the role of local eccentric.

  But as time wore on, something odd happened. It is usual in the manner of experiences such as Mr. Berger’s that, as distance grows from the event in question, so too the memory of it becomes foggier. Mr. Berger should, if the ordinary rules of behavior were being obeyed, have become ever more certain of the psychologically troubling nature of his encounter with the young woman reminiscent of Anna Karenina. But Mr. Berger found himself believing with greater and greater conviction that the opposite was true. He had seen the woman, and she was real, admittedly allowing for a certain latitude in one’s definition of reality.

  He began reading again, tentatively at first, but soon with his previous immersion. He also returned to walking the path that wound down to the railway line, and sitting on his stile to watch the trains go by. Each evening, with the approach of the express from Exeter to Plymouth, he would set aside his book, and watch the rougher trail to the south. It was darker now, and the trail was harder to see, but Mr. Berger’s eyes were still keen, and through habit he grew practiced at picking out the difference in the density of the bushes.

  But the trail remained undisturbed until February came, and the woman returned.


  It was a cold but bracing evening. There was no damp in the air, and Mr. Berger enjoyed the sight of his breath pluming as he took his constitutional. There was to be music in the Spotted Frog that night: some form of folk revivalism, for which Mr. Berger had a sneaking fondness. He intended to drop in for an hour or two, once he had watched the train go by. His vigil at the stile had become something of a ritual, and although he told himself that it was no longer connected to the business of the woman with the red bag, he secretly knew that it was. He was haunted by the image of her.

  He took his seat on the stile and lit his pipe. From somewhere to the east, he heard the sound of the approaching train. He glanced at his watch and saw that it was just after six. The train was early. This was unheard of. If he had still been in the habit of writing letters to the Telegraph, he might well have popped off a missive announcing this turnup for the books, much in the manner of those twitchers who liked to let the populace know of the appearance of the first cuckoo of spring.

  He was already composing the letter in his head when he was distracted by a commotion to his right. Someone was coming down the trail, and in some hurry. Mr. Berger dropped from the stile and began walking in the direction of the sounds. The sky was clear, and the moon was already silvering the undergrowth, but even without the aid of its light Mr. Berger would have been able to pick out the woman rushing to meet the train, and the red bag that hung from her arm.

  Mr. Berger dropped his pipe, but managed to retrieve it. It was, after all, a good pipe.

  While it would not be untrue to say that he had become obsessed with the woman, he had no real expectation of ever seeing her again. After all, people did not make a habit of throwing themselves under trains. It was the kind of act that tended to be performed once, or not at all. In the case of the former, any possible repeat of the incident was likely to be ruled out by the action of a heavy engine or, in the unlikely event of survival, sufficient recall of the painfulness of the first attempt to render most unwelcome any repetition of it. Yet here, without a shadow of a doubt, was the same young woman carrying the same red bag and making the same rush toward self-destruction that Mr. Berger had previously witnessed.

  It must be a ghost, thought Mr. Berger. There can be no other explanation. This is the spirit of some poor woman who died long ago—for he saw that her clothing was not of this century—and she is doomed to repeat her final moments over and over until—

  Until what? Mr. Berger wasn’t certain. He had read his share of M. R. James and W. W. Jacobs, of Oliver Onions and William Hope Hodgson, but had never come across
anything quite like this in their stories. He had a vague notion that digging up a forgotten corpse and reburying it in a more appropriate location sometimes helped, while James tended to favor restoring ancient artifacts to their previous resting place, thereby calming the spirits associated with them, but Mr. Berger had no idea where the young woman might be interred, and he had not picked so much as a flower while on his walks, let alone removed some old whistle or manuscript. All of this would have to be dealt with later, he realized. There was more important business to attend to.

  The early arrival of the train had obviously caught the woman, spectral or otherwise, by surprise, and the branches seemed to be conspiring to keep her from her date with mortality. They caught at her dress, and at one point she took a tumble that sent her to her knees. Despite all of these hindrances, it was obvious to Mr. Berger that she was still likely to make it to the track in time to receive the full impact of the train.

  Mr. Berger ran, and as he did so he screamed and shouted, and waved his arms. He ran faster than he had ever run before, so that he managed to reach the base of the trail some time before the woman did. She drew up short, apparently surprised to see him. Perhaps she had been so intent on her own demise that she had failed to hear his cries, but she was now faced with the physical reality of Mr. Berger, and he with hers. She was younger than he, and her skin was unusually pale, although that might just have been the moonlight. Her hair was the blackest that Mr. Berger had ever seen. It seemed to consume the light.

  The woman tried to dart to her right, and then to her left, to avoid Mr. Berger, but the bushes were too thick. He felt the ground vibrating, and the noise of the approaching train was deafeningly loud. He was aware of its whistle sounding. The driver had probably spotted him by the track. Mr. Berger raised his right hand and waved to let the driver know that all was well. The woman was not going to get past him, and Mr. Berger had no intention of throwing himself under any trains.