A Sad Refrain
The walls muted the nocturne so he could barely hear it, but Jonathan was captivated. Like a haunted man he stumbled through the hallways, eyes darting to each door and hatch in search of the source.
As he neared the aft observation lounge, the music reached a crescendo and he knew it lay beyond him. He paused, hand a breath from the entry panel, and examined, for a moment, the odd sensation of a disembodied but very personal melancholy filling him.
Frowning, he glanced down at Porthos, and told himself this was inappropriate. The player had retreated to the far corners of the ship in the middle of the night to preserve his lonely music, to intrude seemed cruel, but he had to know who'd blessed his ship with beautiful music.
Against all instinct, he smiled faintly and opened the door, stepping inside.
The lights were dimmed so that only the smear of stars at warp illuminated the man standing by the window, his fingers drifting smoothly across the strings of a violin. His lips twitched with each elevating note as the music moved through him, eyes closed and expression warping to follow the story in the climax.
It took Jonathan a moment to recognise his armoury officer, dark hair dishevelled but pushed back from his forehead, dim light casting shadow into all the lines in his face; the contrast making him appear both younger and older at the same time, innocent and burdened. He wasn't in uniform, just a pair of neatly pressed slacks and a rumpled white dress shirt, untucked, sleeves rolled up.
With unthinking stupidity, Jonathan broke the magic spell. "I didn't know you played the violin."
Malcolm turned to him with a slight smile on his lips, eyes bright but distant. His expression warmed a few degrees as he realised who had intruded, "It's not a violin, sir. It's a viola." He seemed to return to himself somewhat, shifting awkwardly and straightening his back, "Am I disturbing anyone? I thought this area of the ship was mostly deserted this late at night."
"I'm sure I would have heard if you were causing any trouble. No, I was walking Porthos, and I heard your music. I thought I might be hallucinating at first." He smiled, but it fell quickly, "But please accept my apology for intruding on your playing, I can leave."
"Not at all." Malcolm shrugged and glanced back out into space. "It's rare that I have an audience but not unheard of. If you wanted to stay and listen, I don't mind. Otherwise, have a pleasant night, sir."
"I'm going to accept that invite." Jonathan beamed and sat on a nearby sofa, leaning back into the cushions as if he were on the bridge. "Malcolm, you're improving, but you're still calling me sir off-duty. Surely we're beyond that now?"
Malcolm turned more fully towards him and smiled self-deprecatingly. "My apologies, Jon." His eyes dropped and he examined the viola with sensitive reverence, fingers drifting up the strings and lingering along the curve of the scroll.
Jonathan accepted Porthos into his lap and rubbed behind his ears. "I've known you for nearly five years and not once did you mention you played the viola."
His friend shrugged. "I only brought her on board with me after our last leave on Earth. I've been stealing hours in the night when sleep is difficult to hide away here and practice. Otherwise, I hadn't played for several years."
"I couldn't tell. I thought your playing was beautiful."
"I guess it's in the violist's ear." Malcolm inclined his head slightly, inscrutable smile still touching his lips. "I notice the minor failings, the atrophy of my skills having let them stagnate, but I play adequately to an untrained admirer. Thankfully I will never lose it too much because I've been playing since I was very young."
Jonathan's brow dipped into a bemused frown. "You've never mentioned it."
Malcolm sighed. "To compliment strength and discipline, my father also demanded intelligence and creativity. Every member of my family plays an instrument. My sister and I were taken to an old music shop in London the day each of us turned five, where my father's father took him, and his father's father before him, and told to select an instrument, a voice for the unspeakable things, a retreat to last us the rest of our lives, where no one else could go."
"Unfortunately my first choice was a bass guitar and my father wasn't too pleased, insisting instead that I pick any place in a classical orchestra layout. I actually forgot those lessons, so I just pointed at a section and he agreed. At least it was a string instrument, an acceptable compromise."
After staring at him for a long moment, Jonathan inclined his head slightly. "What other instruments were played in your family?"
"My mother was a singer, but she also played the piano and the flute. My father was an accomplished cellist, and my sister selected a violin to imitate me, but ultimately migrated to the bass, would you believe it?" He shook his head with a nostalgic smile. "Even got her dose of fame and fortune touring in a band until she got pregnant and returned to school, but, and this is the kicker, she was still the favourite after I decided not to join the Navy."
His eyes wide, Jonathan cleared his throat and leaned forward, driven by a compulsion to be that little bit closer to Malcolm. Following a momentary frown, a small smile gently touched his lips. "What made you decide to start playing again?"
Malcolm shrugged and gazed out of the window once more. "I couldn't tell you. It just felt like it was time to let a part of me, long silent, speak once more." His expression dimmed, "I visited my parents briefly during our last leave and realised we hadn't played together in quite some time." He glanced down to the instrument in his hands, fingers quivering slightly on the bow as he lowered himself into a nearby chair. "She was still sitting in my closet back in San Francisco."
Jonathan's eyes narrowed with mild intrigue. "Does she have a name?"
An eyebrow quirked and fell, then Malcolm shyly turned his head away and stared at the stars. "Yes. Her name is Mnemosyne."
Shaking his head, Jonathan felt his brow sink, lips twitching into a confused, slightly incredulous smile. He followed Malcolm's gaze out of the window, leaning against the arm of the sofa and resting his chin in his hand. "Truly, you are an enigma, Malcolm. An enigma wrapped in a mystery, and there's a riddle or two in there somewhere as well."
"Sir?" Malcolm frowned, somewhat perturbed, and shrugged apologetically. "Jon, what do you mean?"
"Ever since that first breakfast, I've tried to decipher you, but just as I think I've glimpsed the full picture, I find I'm still missing several pieces. Then I stumble across you late one night playing viola and discussing classical mythology, and I realise all my understanding up until now feels strangely off the mark. You're so full of discoveries that change my perspective. Sometimes when I can barely summon the strength to walk, the desire to see more is all that gets me out of bed."
Malcolm hurriedly stumbled to his feet and paused an inch from the window, hand tenderly touching the glass with a wistful smile, replacing the disturbed expression of moments before. "I'm not sure I'm worth such trouble, Jon. There's nothing profound inside, no secrets or wonders to behold. Just a lonely, proud man." He glanced back, eyes twinkling. "Would you like to hear me play again?"
Jonathan smiled gently and nodded, seeking to allay that spark of fear he'd glimpsed in the man. "I would love to." His hand rested on his dog's warm head, stroking lazily back and forth, and he sank a little further into the luxurious cushions, watching Malcolm lift the instrument to his shoulder and compose himself.
As he listened, he tried to decipher to what sentiment his companion was giving voice. He wondered what unspoken burden he was lifting, what urges could only be expressed in the sad, sweet music drifting through the night, the transformation visible as Malcolm's back straightened and his encumbered expression eased. Jonathan started to doubt he'd ever know, but the need knotted somewhere hot in his chest, hoping for the one impossible day it may be relieved.
When the song ended and silence befell them, he let it linger until Malcolm opened his eyes and hesitantly smiled.
"I recognise that song."
Malcolm gazed wistfully out of the window once more. "It's from the late 20th century, 1984 to be precise, a singer named Leonard Cohen. It's been covered many notable times, every version altering tone and pace and intent. It can be melancholy, joyful, contemplative, even sensual..." He shivered, a shadow of regret warping his features, though it was gone so quickly Jonathan wondered if he had misinterpreted the frown. "I used to go through old songs that weren't classical looking for something more interesting to play, Hallelujah was recommended to me by a friend, a true music aficionado. We perfected my version together."
Jonathan opened his mouth, but struggled for a few moments to find something to say. He tilted his head and then dropped it as Porthos whined.
Finally, he sighed, "Have you ever composed anything yourself?"
Unexpectedly, Malcolm laughed at that. He lifted his free arm and braced himself against the window, shaking his head in quiet self-depreciation. "Once when I was younger. I actually undertook the rather ambitious task of composing my own score for The Iliad. I was rather enamoured with that epic poem as a child, as you can imagine." Grinning, his eyes gleamed as he turned to Jonathan. "I managed one small piece, the death of Patroclus, before I became distracted by other things." He lifted his eyebrows. "Mainly my libido."
Jonathan happily accepted Malcolm's company on the long sofa as he sat, watching his friend's face remain amused, eyes downturned. He stretched one of his arms along the back, another vague wish for contact.
"It was those endeavours that led me, several years later, to compose a rather bleak but lovesick melody to my University sweethearts." Malcolm sighed softly. "Unfortunately they both left me."
"Both of them? Of all things, I would never have taken you for a Casanova."
"Oh, no Casanova. Not at all. I wasn't bold enough for that." He grinned again, but let the expression quickly slip away. "We were all faithful to one another. Though we inevitably drifted apart in the end. I was the first to evolve beyond what they wanted. All part of growing up, I suppose."
Jonathan was sure he'd never learned so little from someone who had said so much, and felt so guilty for wanting more of the man who'd already been so open and accommodating. He smirked as he realised the predicament in which Malcolm had so effortlessly wrapped him, shaking his head and averting his eyes. "Loving and losing, a story we all know so well."
"Indeed." Malcolm's lips pursed.
They lapsed into silence, longer and more awkward than those before, and Jonathan decided to cut his losses.
He nudged Porthos until the sleepy beagle hopped down, and then staggered to his feet, joining his canine companion in a modest stretch. "Perhaps it's time to retire, I want to thank you for sharing your time and your music with me."
Malcolm looked up, his eyes unusually bright, almost mirthful. "I thank you for sharing your company. I've not had company in my music for a long time, too long."
"I was happy to oblige. Any time, Malcolm." He smiled warmly, but his eyes dimmed as he scanned his friend. "I mean that. I am honoured to be your friend, particularly when you choose to remind me that I am such to you."
"You are," Malcolm nodded eagerly, but he shifted awkwardly and offered a guarded smile.
Smirking vaguely, Jonathan grew aware he had taken more than his fair share tonight, and backed down, turning to leave. "Goodnight, Malcolm. See you on the bridge tomorrow. Do get some sleep."
"I will, Jon. Eventually." He nodded and returned his gaze to the window, lifting Mnemosyne to his shoulder and beginning to play.
"Oh." Jonathan stopped, hesitating by the door.
Malcolm's left eyebrow lifted and the music abruptly halted, the aborted note discordantly ringing out, "Hm?"
"Speaking of breakfast." He nodded curtly. "Tomorrow, 0800 in the Captain's mess."
"Yes, sir." Malcolm inclined his head and smiled genuinely, a warm gesture that filled Jonathan with confidence. "Goodnight."
Jonathan beamed back. "Goodnight."
As he turned and walked away, he let Malcolm's beautiful music haunt him until he could hear it no more.