A year after concert pianist Dominic Amoruso’s mysterious disappearance during a private recital in Toronto, his friend, the journalist Joe Serafina, receives a package of Dom’s tapes and notebooks from a place called Wolf Cove on Baffin Island. By transcribing the tapes and matching them with entries in the notebooks, Joe slowly pieces togethe …
YOU MAY RECALL THIS STORY from the newspapers:
A year or so ago, during a recital of Pictures at an Exhibition, the concert pianist Dominic Amoruso stopped, got up from the piano, turned to the audience, paused – and walked away without a word. Just like that, he disappeared.
There were suggestions at the time of an attack of stage fright; the onset of some sudden illness; a temperamental reaction to some careless noise in the audience; perhaps a nervous breakdown. I was there that night. I saw what happened. I’m still not sure I understand.
He was performing in the Walker Court of the Art Gallery of Ontario. He was playing the piece with which he launched his career, and with which he is most closely associated. He’d begun with his usual brilliance. There was no hint of anything unusual.
He plays the Musorgsky as written – more powerful, perhaps more jagged than you are used to hearing it. Closer to Richter than Horowitz; closer to Ashkenazy than Richter; but all Musorgsky. Or so I am told. I am not a music critic. But I do have particular knowledge of Amoruso. I have known him since childhood. He has the nerves of a burglar. He often joked that he could play Pictures in his sleep, that he played it better in his dreams. That night, however, he became progressively more tentative as he made his way through the music and, towards the end, his hands began to jerk back from the piano as if he feared the keys might bite him.
He appeared puzzled. Then frightened. He grimaced. He fought himself. He froze. He sat for a moment with his hands raised high in front of him, unable or unwilling to move. The image was that of a child shielding his face from the attentions of a large black dog.
In the audience: silence, whispers, murmurs, gasps. Men and women shifting in their seats. A few rows behind me, a man began to clap and a shrill, two-fingered whistle pierced the rising murmur. Someone hissed at the rudeness; then, as if to explain that the hiss was meant to admonish the whistler and not the pianist, the crowd broke into earnest, almost apologetic applause.
Dominic let his hands fall. His shoulders sagged. He pushed himself up from the piano bench and faced us as if he were about to speak. I held my breath; we all did. He made a useless gesture with his hands. No words came. He looked up and flinched as if he thought something might fall on him. He turned on his heel and walked away, without so much as a sideways glance.
The director of the gallery tried to catch his elbow.
Thomas Carter is a small slim grey-haired man who favours a crisp black suit and an impeccable white shirt. Amoruso brushed past him.
Carter took centre stage and apologized briskly on Dominic’s behalf. Said he was sure it was nothing serious. Efforts were being made to take care of him, there was indeed a doctor in the house – a remark that caused a titter. There were plenty of them in the house.
And then, with a confident smile, Carter made a few remarks about the evening’s exhibition, about which more in a moment. He invited us to join him for a glass of champagne, after which he said we might like to take a stroll through the gallery.
I caught up with Carter and asked if I could help in any way. He directed me to a makeshift green room off to the side of Walker Court. Dominic was nowhere to be seen. No one could tell me where he was. And so I resolved to find him.
I left the gallery and went to look for him in his usual post-performance haunts. I went to Pho Pasteur, Dai Nam – his favourite noodle shops in Chinatown: No, sorry, we haven’t seen him, not tonight, we don’t know where he is.
I went to the Fran’s on College St. No, dear, he hasn’t been in. At least not this evening. If he drops by later, is there a message? I took the subway to the Fran’s on St. Clair, the one near his apartment; the same response. I walked to his apartment building and rang his buzzer. Nothing doing. The doorman said he hadn’t seen him that evening, although I was sure this was an act of loyalty.
I was stumped.
As nearly as I can determine, he made three phone calls that evening: first, to Claire Weller – they were intimate; second, to his agent, the elderly but formidable Anne Langelier. And there was a brief and simple message on my machine when I finally got home: It’s me. I’m sorry. –Don’t worry. I’ll be in touch. His voice sounded altogether serene.
It seems to me that when someone does something quite out of character, says “Don’t worry,” and then drops out of sight, it is prudent to worry in earnest. I tried to return his call. I was not the only one – his phone rang busy all night long. Eventually I gave up – either several of us were trying to get through all at once and we were blocking the line, or he had taken his phone off the hook.
I finally got through the next morning.
His voice mail kicked in after half a dozen rings. His mailbox was full and would no longer accept new messages.
It didn’t add up.
From the Hardcover edition.
Abandoned as an infant, ten-year-old Chamdi has spent his entire life in a Bombay orphanage. There he has learned to find solace in his everyday surroundings: the smell of the first rains, the vibrant pinks and reds of the bougainvilleas that blossom in the courtyard, the life-size statue of Jesus, the "beautiful giant," to whom he confides his hop …
Without warning, the man rams the iron rod into the face that peers through the window. There is a sickening crunch and the face disappears. That must be Hanif the taxiwala, thinks Chamdi. The man stands guard outside the window, the iron rod by his side. He looks ready to repeat his actions should the need arise.
In the darkness of the lane, Chamdi can hear a woman scream from inside the blue shack. He imagines Hanif lying on the ground, his teeth smashed with an iron rod, blood streaming from his nose and mouth, while his wife bangs on the bolted door with her fists.
Chamdi is unable to move. None of the neighbours come to the family’s rescue. Most of the men and women return to their shacks, and the few that remain outside look just as terrified as Chamdi.
Chamdi stares at Anand Bhai, who stands rooted to the ground. Dressed in black, Anand Bhai looks like he is part of the night itself. Chamdi cannot understand how Anand Bhai can smile at a time like this.
Chamdi runs his hands across his ribs.
He tries to push his ribs in, but it is of no use. They continue to stick out of his white vest. Perhaps it is because he is only ten years old. When he grows older, he will have more flesh on his body and his ribs will be less visible. With this thought, he walks down the steps of the orphanage.
He stands barefoot in the courtyard. He never wears slippers because he likes to feel hot earth against his feet. It is early January, and the rains are still far away. Even though a new year has begun, the earth looks old, the cracks in its skin deeper than ever. The sun hits Chamdi’s black hair and forces him to squint.
He stretches his arms out and walks towards a wall, where his world ends and someone else’s begins. As he nears the wall, he hears the city – faraway car horns, the hum of scooters and motorcycles. He knows Bombay is much louder than this, but the courtyard is not near the main road. Beyond the wall is a small marketplace where women sell fish and vegetables from cane baskets and men squat on their haunches and clean people’s ears for a few rupees.
Pigeons sit in a row on the wall and chatter. Spikes of glass are placed along the edge of the wall to prevent people from entering the courtyard. Chamdi asks himself why anyone would bother sneaking into the courtyard. There is nothing to steal at the orphanage.
A loud cycle ring causes a few pigeons to flutter away, but they quickly regain their places on the wall. The shards of glass do not seem to bother the pigeons. They know where to place their feet.
Chamdi touches the wall and feels the black stone. He smiles when he thinks of the moss that will appear. Rain can make life out of walls. But it is still a few months before he can inhale deeply and take in his favourite scent. The smell of the first rains, that of a thankful earth satisfied by water, is what he dreams about all year long. If only the inside of the orphanage could smell like that, it would be the most loved orphanage in the entire city.
This tenth year has been hard for Chamdi. He is beginning to understand many things now. When he was a child, he had many questions, but now they might be answered, and he is afraid he will not like the answers at all.
He turns away from the wall and wanders towards a well made of grey cement.
As he stares at his reflection in the water, he wonders if he looks like his mother or like his father.
He believes he has his mother’s eyes, large and black. Was it his mother or father who dropped him off here? He wonders if they are alive.
He puts one foot on the parapet of the well.
Bougainvilleas surround him. They are his favourite flowers. So pink and red, full of love, he thinks. If these flowers were human they would be the most beautiful people on earth.
He puts his other foot on the parapet of the well and stands tall.
He looks through the open window of the orphanage. Most of the children are huddled together on one bed. He can hear them sing “Railgaadi.” The girls make the chook-chook sound of a train, while the boys shout out the names of cities and towns at great speed – Mandwa, Khandwa, Raipur, Jaipur, Talegaon, Malegaon, Vellur, Sholapur, Kolhapur. There are so many places in India, Chamdi says to himself, and I have not visited a single one.
He likes how tall he feels with the added height of the parapet. Perhaps one day he will grow to this size. But it will still take years. And even if he does grow tall, so what? He will still have nowhere to go. There will come a day when he must leave the orphanage. But there will be no one to say goodbye to. No one will miss him if he goes.
He stares at the water in the well.
It is extremely still. He wonders if he should jump in. He will swallow as much water as his body will allow. If his parents ever come back for him, they will find him sleeping at the bottom of the well.
The moment he has this thought, he gets off the parapet.
He walks quickly towards the orphanage and climbs up the three steps that lead to the foyer, where the children’s rubber slippers are placed in a neat row on the ground and a black umbrella hangs from a hook on a yellowed, patchy wall.
His small feet leave dirt marks on the stone floor. He enters the sleeping room and receives an angry look from Jyoti, who sits on her haunches and washes the floor. She always scolds him for not wearing slippers.
From the Hardcover edition.
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