But away from music that was so different

The sweat had poured off them at Anapa. It was hot in the Caucasus, and he had never liked the heat. They had gazed at Low Bay beach but he felt no inclination to cool off by taking a swim. They walked in the shade of the forest above the town, and he was bitten by mosquitoes. Then they were cornered by a pack of dogs and almost eaten alive. None of this mattered. They inspected the resort’s lighthouse, but while Tanya craned her head upwards, his concentration was on the sweet fold of skin it made at the base of her neck. They visited the old stone gate which was all that remained of the Ottoman fortress, but he was thinking about her calves, and the way their muscles moved as she walked. There was nothing in his life for those weeks except love, music and mosquito bites. The love in his heart, the music in his head, the bites on his skin. Not even paradise was free of insects. But he could hardly resent them. Their bites were ingeniously made in places inaccessible to him; the lotion was based on an extract of carnation flowers. If a mosquito was the cause of her fingers touching his skin and making him smell of carnations, how could he possibly hold anything against the insect?

They were nineteen and they believed in Free Love: keener tourists of each other’s bodies than of the resort’s attractions. They had thrown off the fossilised dictates of church, of society, of family, and gone away to live as man and wife without being man and wife. This excited them almost as much as the sexual act itself; or was, perhaps, inextricable from it.

But then came all the time they were not in bed together. Free Love may have solved the primary problem, but had not done away with the others. Of course they loved one another; but being all the time in one another’s company – even with his 300 roubles and his young fame – was not straightforward. When he was composing, he always knew exactly what to do; he made the right decisions about what the music – his music – required. And when conductors or soloists wondered politely if this might be better, or that might be better, he would always reply, ‘I’m sure you’re right. But let’s leave it for now. I’ll make that change next time round.’ And they were satisfied, and he was too, since he never had any intention of implementing their suggestions. Because his decisions, and his instinct, had been correct.

But away from music … that was so different. He became nervous, things blurred in his mind, and he would sometimes make a decision simply in order to have the matter settled rather than because he knew what he wanted. Perhaps his artistic precocity meant that he had avoided those useful years of ordinary growing up. But whatever the cause, he was bad at the practicalities of life, which included, of course, the practicalities of the heart. And so, at Anapa, alongside the exaltations of love and the heady self-satisfaction of sex, he found himself entering a whole new world, one full of unwanted silences, misunderstood hints and scatter-brained planning.

Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time.

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