Saturday, 4 March 2017


I’d known Melody since we were eight. Even at that tender age she was always quick to announce to the world at large her one true passion—music. Her mother was a violinist of international fame, a late bloomer who started shining only in her late twenties—a rarity in a field teeming with child prodigies.

I heard Mrs Wong play once, when I was ten. It was at the Carnegie Hall in New York, and she had kindly given me a ticket to join Melody in the audience. It was the very first time I remember being moved to tears. Every note, every strain hit me in places I never knew existed, drawing out each trembling strand of emotion into rivulets down my cheeks.

I couldn’t wait for the next performance. So determined was I to attend that I even saved up my pocket money, just in case I wasn’t going to get a free ticket the next time round.

But the next time round never came. Mrs Wong shocked the music sphere, perhaps even the world, by retiring at the age of thirty-four, barely five years after her musical career had taken off.

It was taking a heavy toll on her, she told my mother sadly, and true enough she seemed to be considerably older than her age. Her gaunt face had taken on a sickly pale hue, which only served to make her sunken eyes look hauntingly large.

At first, there were whispers that she was dying from cancer, but these subsided once it was clear she was taking well to early retirement and recovering rapidly. Her short but wildly lucrative years as the nation’s top violinist meant that she never had to take on a job again, and she instead spent most of her time tending to her small garden. More than once, though, I spied her staring into the distance with a soft, dreamy look on her face, gardening shears hanging limply from her hands.

The flowers in her garden never really bloomed.

To Melody, following her mother’s footsteps was her birthright, her destiny. It wasn’t a question of if, but when. She practised hard, sometimes making me watch her play. But even to my unseasoned ears, the notes that tumbled from her violin seemed rough and clumsy, bearing none of the grace and finesse I heard that night in Carnegie Hall. Most of all, there was none of the spark, the magic that turns ordinary notes into red-hot lances that drill into your soul. She must have known it as well, for after a while her violin made no further appearance, languishing instead in a dust-covered case somewhere in the basement.

For a while, it looked as though she would find herself in other things. She made the volleyball team in school, and her fast-strengthening legs made her a fearsome competitor on the track. But I could tell she wasn’t satisfied.

“You should be proud,” I told her, feeling a faint sense of anger rise within me. “You’re like the best sportswoman the school has ever seen.”

She shot me a cold look. “I thought you of all people would understand.”

I didn’t like the look of disdain in her eyes.

We drifted apart after that.

It was only when the cancer got ahold of her that we started talking again. She didn’t seem upset that she could no longer play volleyball or take part in the track meet—if anything, she seemed almost relieved.

As the early days of hope quickly darkened, with every visit to the specialist, every chemotherapy session, into a quiet acceptance that the time she had left was short, she asked for the dusty case in the basement to be brought up to her.

Her mother, heartbroken to see how wan and emaciated she had become, insisted that her daughter take her very own violin instead. Mrs Wong’s case, too, was kept in the basement, but as we soon saw, it was far from neglected. Someone had been keeping it regularly and lovingly cleaned.

The violin itself was a thing of beauty. I don’t know if it was a Stradivarius or something, or whatever it was that all famous violinists had, but the varnished wood had a warm, almost glowing, lustre to it that irresistibly drew the eye of everyone in the room.

It was the sound though, the sound the instrument gave as the former career violinist cradled it under her chin. God, the full-bodied, honeyed music that oozed from it—it made your skin crawl in the most wonderful way.

Mrs Wong almost had to tear the violin away from her own grasp to thrust it into her daughter's weak and shaky hands.

The first few notes were awful and jarring. But then a sudden shudder pulsed through her spindly body, and her eyes came alit with a fire I had never before seen, not when she had broken the school’s record for the hundred-metre sprint, nor when she had leapt into the air like an Amazonian Fury to smash down an unstoppable volley to win the finals for the school. It was a mischievous, confident flame that gleamed in her eye, the spark of a musician, an artiste.

The dreary room fell away as she swept us all along on a journey to pristine snow-capped mountains and verdant vistas. It was at times surging, relentless, the inexorable march of time and tide; at times it lilted and waltzed like a lovers’ embrace—but always, always there was a faint stir of sadness that shook our souls and eventually settled, uncomfortably, in the pits of our stomachs.

We each left the room that night with tear-stained faces, echoes of the song still ringing in our ears. I turned back to wish my friend goodnight, but she was already fast asleep, her face aglow with bliss.

She passed away barely a week later. The doctor’s prognosis had actually outlived her by three months. But we who were there in the room that night weren’t surprised, not really. You simply couldn’t pour so much of your soul into something without being—emptied somewhat.

I gave Mrs Wong a long hug after the funeral. A part of me wanted to ask her about the violin, but mostly I was content to leave it as it was. There are some questions in life you didn’t need an answer to.

I never saw her again after that. I did hear that she made a brief comeback as a violinist shortly after her daughter’s death, and that her music was even more enchanting than before. But I never watched her play. I don’t quite know how to explain it, but in a way, I had heard enough.

Even as her music got fuller, she wasted away at a frightening pace, so much so that the advertisements for her shows soon featured only the photos of her younger days. She died before she turned forty, leaving behind a gaping hole far, far larger than the figure her diminutive stature had, in life, carved on stage.

She left the bulk of her immense fortune to the charity she had founded in Melody’s memory.

As for her violin, it was as if it had disappeared into thin air.

It’s been years and years since, and I’ve never heard any music that can hope to compare with what I heard that night in Melody’s room—no, nothing even close. The memory of the tune itself eludes me, but I will always remember the rush of passion and the mad whirlwind of emotions—and most of all, the gentle, poignant tug of all that could never be.

I miss you, Melody.