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The Bouzouki

ISSUE:  Spring 1983

I was just 15 that summer, 15 and fat and filled with the hopeless certainty that I could only grow fatter, until I eventually became a soft, silly woman like my mother. I could see my life stretching out clearly before me; I was firmly convinced that love would never be a part of it, that I was doomed to a lonely existence in which my only pleasure was food.

No wonder, then, that Theo became my focus. We had grown up together, British by experience, American by birth, playmates as children, schoolgirls in the same exclusive and dull institutions of learning. She was a strange-looking girl, long-legged, long-footed, thin, and clumsy. She rarely smiled—it was not in her nature to smile for others—and her severity, coupled with her coloring, a sort of tawny-gold all over—skin, long hair, eyelashes, even her slanted eyes—gave her the slightly unreal look of a bronze figurine. This put off some people, but I thought it gave her mystery and a strange beauty. There was nothing on earth I wouldn’t have given, then, to be her.

Theo and I both played the violin. I was fairly good, if uncommitted; for her age, she was splendid. I have always loved to watch her play, watch her thin strong fingers dance across the strings, the impossible arc of her wrist, the way her mouth and long eyes narrow in total concentration. She was just coming into it then, her skill just beginning to catch up with her talent. Thus it was when my father, fired by a brochure he had seen which glowingly described a retreat in Greece for young musicians, offered to send us both, I was just as thrilled for Theo as I was for myself.

Samoikthos lies on a rocky bulge along the coast of the Aegean. Once, I suppose, it was a bustling place, perched breathtakingly over the turquoise sea. When we arrived that summer so long ago, we arrived to silence and dusty heat. The village, or what was left of it after an apparent earthquake, had long since been abandoned to the wild goats and the lizards and the thistles. Here we were to retreat for the summer with our violins, a few other wealthy young students, and some of the best teachers in Europe, or so said the brochure that had ignited my father’s imagination.

The camp, as we called it for lack of a better name, had been set up in the less damaged end of the village, a cluster of small whitewashed houses set neatly on several straight grassy little streets. There were other students there already; everyone looked serious and busy, and I instinctively drew closer to Theo.

We were assigned a cottage of our own with a couple of small, dark rooms, blue-shuttered windows, bare cold floors, and two wooden, rope-woven beds. We stood in the doorway and sighed, me in resignation, she, with apparent deep satisfaction. I could see she was going to take to this place like a nun to a convent.

The emphasis of the camp was on individual instruction, and each of the several teachers had a group of five or six students assigned to him. Theo and I were parceled out to a man named Cedric Bellamy and told to report to his cottage, down the road a bit, for the group theory meeting that evening.

He met us at the door.

“Come in, come in,” he said, and his brown eyes touched each of us, nervously, quickly. He was wearing a loose woven shirt and the baggy vracas, or breeches, of the island fishermen. In spite of all this, the light wavy brown hair and fair skin made him look very British indeed. Before anything else I noticed his hand, curved around the doorjamb. The hand of a violinist, obviously. Thin and strong and sensitive, like Theo’s. I thought he must be about 40, and it was clear that he had been very good-looking at one time.

He gave us a little talk, a mumbling talk with eyes downcast, about practice and commitment and skill and how he would approach our lessons. The room was small, and we were pressed close to each other, seated on the floor. Two flies bumbled back and forth in front of Mr. Bellamy’s face. He rambled on softly, and I thought I had never before heard a kinder or more gentle voice.

Theo, beside me, was shifting and frowning. Oh, Theo, I thought, give him a chance. Her hand shot into the air, and I sighed, though not loudly enough for her to hear.

“Mr. Bellamy?”

“Yes? Yes?”

“Mr. Bellamy. . . .”

“Cedric, please, by all means,” he interrupted and then flushed, and I noted it and marked it down as lovable.

Theo frowned, looking formidable. “I suppose I need to know what it is we will actually be learning,” she said. “I suppose I feel I don’t need the inspiration, just what it is you have to teach.”

Poor Seedy, as I was already affectionately calling him in my mind, flushed again, more violently than ever and swallowed hard and stared at Theo for a long time.

“Oh yes,” he said absently. “Oh, I say. . . .” And he turned and walked from the room and returned in a moment carrying a case from which he drew the loveliest violin I have ever seen. It had to be a couple of hundred years old, I could tell that, and he handled it as reverently as if he himself had been the creator.

After a couple of minutes of tuning and mumbling to himself, he began to play, and the playing sent fingers up my spine. Sometime in the middle of it, I remembered to glance at Theo. She was fixed on his hands and that violin like a telescope on the stars, and I saw the beginnings of one of those rare and fleeting smiles playing around the corners of her spinsterish mouth.

The focus of the summer was on individual tutoring, and that is how Seedy proceeded. He gave us an hour and a half each per day, and the rest of our time was to be spent practicing. It was intense and exhausting, and Theo loved it, I, myself, felt the draw of the surrounding hills, the goatpaths and the nearby sea too compelling. I would take my violin, with every good intention, to find a nice flat rock in the sun on which to practice. I even folded up my music stand and lugged it along—and then would spend the hours alone dreaming and watching the clouds, sniffing the pungent air with its smells of ocean and baked earth. My playing improved but only for Seedy’s sake, not by any effort of my own. The long hours I spent alone, walking or stretched out in the sun, were mostly taken up by happy fantasies, romantic adventures starring Cedric Bellamy and me, a copperyhaired Jane Taylor, grown miraculously thin and beautiful.

Theo had no time for hiking. She learned quickly that she could, if her timing were right, cadge an extra hour or so from poor Seedy every day. She took her lesson early, before any of the rest of us were even up, grabbed some fruit and bread from the central cottage where we all ate, and then was off. She had found herself, in the ruined part of the village, half a hut, and in spite of everyone’s warnings, installed herself there on a daily basis to practice. I could hear her, when I wasn’t off on my own, running through scales and exercises, over and over again, doing all the boring, nonmusical practicing sort of things that built skill and that I despised and avoided.

In the long dropping evenings after dinner when the sun flamed the sky with pink and the cool Aegean night began to settle in, Theo would lurk about outside Seedy’s studio, waiting until the patient man appeared in the doorway, puffing on his pipe and hoping perhaps for a nice long sit on the stairs.

“Got time for a couple of quick questions?” she would ask brightly, and he always started, as if he couldn’t believe she was there.

“No trouble at all,” he would say. “Come in, come in.” And the hurricane lamp would flare inside, and there they would sit, the violinist and his avid pupil, while she plied him unmercifully with her queries.

“What do you talk about, Theo?” I asked, as casually as I could. “What does he say to you?” I would never have dared disturb the poor man’s evenings; he worked so hard with the five of us all day.

“Oh, things,” she replied airily. “Music. He’s been on the stage, you know. When he was young.” And I knew then that that was Theo’s dream. Concert violinist. As if there weren’t hundreds of them out there trying to be the next Menuhin.

“Oh, Theo,” I said as she reached once more for her case.

My lessons with Seedy, I confess, were spent for the most part in serious study of him. He always talked softly and patiently with me, as if he knew there was no hope, no latent talent to bring forth. I must have looked a fool sitting there, round, damply gaping up into his face, sometimes wearing one of the red poppies I had picked on my walks over the hills and stuck through my buttonhole with shy hope. I thought he was wonderful—the frieze of tiny lines around his brown eyes, the longish, narrow nose, the hint of pink scalp showing through at the back of his head, the shadow of his beard when he forgot to shave—Seedy in my mind was a gentle knight, a prince who had fallen upon hard times. I felt I knew him, through my years of studying Theo. They were much the same when it came to their music. Love and devotion, but somewhere along the line his fire had gone out. I would gaze at his fine sensitive hands and shiver when he reached over and readjusted my grip or the arc of my wrist, and I would wonder what had happened to him, what had gone out of his existence, to make him so sad.

Theo in her usual honest way was not the slightest bit interested in what may or may not have happened in Seedy’s life. She saw him, I believe now, as what he was supposed to be—her teacher—and with her characteristic single-mindedness she went after everything he had to teach.

I had a struggle at this point with my loyalties. My devotion to Theo was as natural to me as breathing and had been a part of my growing up, like learning to read or getting taller. But by now I was also hopelessly in love with Seedy and felt a flash of indignation at Theo’s lack of compassion for him.

“But Theo,” I said helplessly. “Look at him, at how he plays. Look at that beautiful old Amati of his.”

We were standing out on the grass in the dark brushing our teeth before bed, and I gazed up at the stars and ached for him, enjoying immensely the pain in my chest. I thought I might cry, but knew Theo would be disgusted.

“Just think, Theo, it may have been a love affair. He may have fallen in love with some terrible woman who left him and now he is heartbroken.” In spite of my brave efforts, I felt a tear slide out of the corner of my eye.

“Oh, Lord,” said Theo without disgust, and spat toothpaste into the grass. “Look Jane, if you must know, I’ll tell you what I think. You won’t like this a bit,” she said and looked warningly at me in the dark.

I quickly wiped the tear away and nodded at her encouragingly, hoping she hadn’t noticed my sentimental lapse.

“Okay, Jane,” she said flatly. “I think you must face the fact that Seedy is a failure. Look at him, you said. Look at the way he plays, you said. Well, I have looked and it just doesn’t make sense. He should be somebody, and he’s not. I’ll tell you why not.” She reached out and took my arm as I started to back away, shaking my head. “I’ll tell you why not, Jane. He just doesn’t have what it takes, that’s all. He told me so, himself. He was on his way up. He’d gotten a solo audition with the Boston Symphony, can you imagine? He just couldn’t handle it.”

She gave my arm a shake. “Don’t hide so from things, Jane.” She looked at me intently for another moment. “Surely you’ve noticed his wrist?”

I gazed at her stupidly. I thought I had studied every visible inch of Seedy’s body, but he usually wore longsleeved peasant blouses and perhaps I had missed something.

“What?” I said. “What about it?”

“Oh, Jane,” said Theo impatiently. “That scar. You know. Obviously, he couldn’t even do that right.”

I opened my mouth. Nothing came out.

“Jane,” she said, a bit defensively. “You had to have noticed. You just didn’t want to see. You can’t live in a fairyland all your life, you know.”

She watched me for another minute and then touched my shoulder and turned and strode away through the dark in her long white nightgown. I stood there in the grass and thought my heart would break and tried as hard as I could to deny the fact that for one moment, and for the first time in my life, I had hated Theo for what she had said.

The summer slipped along like a fast-rushing stream and my mother wrote to ask whether she might visit me. I wrote back frantically, nearly begging her not to come. I was so happy, so alone, so much in love with Greece and Seedy. My mother’s presence, I thought, would reduce it all to London standards, to a tumbledown excuse for a retreat on a deserted, uninhabitable knob of Greece. And so I continued to walk and practice my violin once in a while and dream and watch Theo fondly, for I had forgiven her by then.

One day as I lay flat as a stone on my blanket on the ground, contemplating the sky and not thinking about my violin, a shadow crossed over and I sat up a bit and peered over the edge of the rock beside me and down at the path. A man and a woman stood in the middle of the trail, facing each other and talking in low voices. He moved toward her, and she gestured sharply and he stopped. The breeze picked up and long hair floated out from the woman’s shoulders, gleaming in the sun like gold. Theo and Seedy, without violins, in the middle of the day. I kept thinking stupidly, he must have skipped some lessons.

He reached out and caught her by the shoulder, and I looked away and then back, miserably, not wanting to see and yet having to understand, and a low aching spread itself through my stomach and up into my chest. She stayed perfectly still, said something low and stern, and though his face was blurred in the strong sunlight, I could see the misery on it as he dropped his arm. She turned and walked back toward the village, and he stood for a long time looking down at the ocean before following slowly after her. I didn’t see either one again until the evening meal.

Theo, for the next few days, was subdued. and touchy. I bumbled and jostled in my anxious concern for both of them, and she withdrew completely behind her severe golden face. She still practiced, still took her morning lessons, but the evening sessions were cut off abruptly. I would sit out on our whitewashed steps in the cooling of the day and watch Seedy, sitting alone, puffing his pipe, on the stairs four cottages down. I imagined myself walking by, kicking at a rock in the road, stopping by his still twilight form. What would I say? How would I comfort him? I wanted to take his head in my lap, stroke his light brown, thinning hair, curl his fingers into my hand. Night after night, instead, I sat and watched him steadily until it was too dark to see.

The days went by, and we woke up early to the sounds of roosters and scent of woodsmoke; we rose and ate and went to our lessons in Seedy’s studio, and I practiced and walked in the hills until the sun fell back into the sea at night. In spite of Theo’s stubborn silence and Seedy’s hopeless, gentle smiles, I continued to be happy in a way I had never claimed for myself before. My legs grew strong, and my fair redhead’s skin burned and peeled and burned and finally tanned from all the sunlight.

Sometimes when I walked in the hills, I would hear Theo in the shattered part of the village, and her practicing was off; the near perfection she had achieved at the beginning was wearing away, losing itself in loud, angry music or scales run much too fast.

One evening I slipped outside to my usual place on the steps and looked through the dusk to Seedy’s stairs. He was there, with a flask beside him and a strange instrument across his lap. He drank and wiped his mouth on his sleeve and took the instrument and began to play and I recognized the bouzouki, the long Oriental-sounding mandolin we called the Greek violin. Now somber and grieving, now wild and passionate, the voice of the bouzouki keened across the summer night like the voice of Seedy’s soul. He played for nearly an hour without ceasing, except to drink from his flask; sometime during that hour Theo slipped out the door and sat beside me, listening.

He stopped eventually and stood and went back into his cottage. The flask lay, on its side on the steps. Theo sat motionless, watching his door and when he didn’t reappear, she whispered “Damn” and rose and strode down the stairs and down the grassy road to his studio. I started to move as she left my side and reached out an arm, I think, to stop her, but the words died useless in my throat and I huddled silently until I saw the door open and close behind her. I turned and bolted to my bed and stayed there shivering until the moment minutes, or hours, later when she burst in upon me.

“Wake up!” she shouted. “Wake up!” And she fell hard in the dark and struck her knee against my bed and moaned out loud.

“The light, Theo. . . .” I sat up quickly.

“No!” she pushed at my shoulders with her hands. “No light. No light.” She sat down heavily beside me, breathing hard, and the old bed creaked. The clean scent of her hair filled the dark, and I reached over and put my hand against her face. Her cheeks were wet with tears.

“Oh, Theo,” I said. “What happened? What on earth has happened?”

“Damn Seedy,” she said. “Damn him to hell.” Her voice was rough with crying.

“What did he do? Are you all right?”

“He’s a pervert, that’s what. A pervert, damn him.” And she kicked hard at the bed frame with her heel. “He tried to . . . he put his hand here and here and here.” And she moved my hand roughly over her body.

“Oh, Theo,” I said, and put my arm across her heaving shoulders. “Oh, Seedy.”

“I’m leaving here, Jane—I’m going home. He’s doing this out of jealousy, you know. He wants to stop me before I get there. Before I get where he never made it. You’ve heard me playing—he’s trying to ruin me.”

I drew my arm slowly away from her back.

“What did you say, Theo? What did you. . . ? Did you say this to him?”

“Yes,” she whispered and her hair brushed my arm. She bent over slowly and covered her face with her fingers. “Yes, I did.”

I moved off the bed and stood over her huddled figure in the dark and felt a rage grow slowly within me until my forehead was tight. “Get up, Theo.” My voice felt tight, as if I might strike her, “Get up and go find him. It might not be too late. You might. . . .”

She shook her head, and I did strike her then, across her temple, hard. And the act of striking Theoline Perry released something within me at that moment, released something and drained away my terrible anger, like water poured into the dust. I left her there and ran through the darkness, down our stairs and to the studio, ran through the door swinging back and forth in the night air and searched through his rooms frantically, clawing my way across the bed and the chairs and the shelves, knocking things to the floor, knowing he was gone. And suddenly my hands were scrabbling over a leather case, and I grabbed his precious Amati violin and hugged it to my chest and sank to the floor and cried.

He wasn’t found for a day and a half and by then it was only a relief, an end to the long waiting. I couldn’t bear to be part of the search and spent the time sitting silent as stone, alone with Theo in our cottage. The cliffs and the long drop to the sea were close enough to our ruined village, and he had been drunk and probably crying as he ran through the dark. I held the thought within me that he didn’t mean to do it, that it was a natural accident, but I knew that Seedy’s light had gone out long ago and not caring anymore, one way or the other, was just the same as planning it.

When the news came back that they had found him, Theo rose and stood silent in the middle of the room, her hands opening and closing, opening and closing like the mouths of fish. She stood before me, straight and thin and tall, with her tawny skin and long eyes and heavy mass of hair, and there was nothing in her eyes, on that austere face, to tell me what she was thinking. She blinked finally, as if she were just awakening from a long sleep, and reached for her duffel bag and pulled out socks and jeans and shirts until she found a razor blade. And standing in the middle of the room, without looking in a mirror, she hacked off the golden hair, hunk by hunk, and let it fall shining to the floor.


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