The Days we Live

a story for our times

Most people seem to have heard of epidemiologists these days. That was what I trained to be, but currently I work for a multinational, analysing and sequencing DNA. I love my work, but I’m never going to get a Nobel prize. I am just one of many, a single drone in an army of scientists. All that I get are instructions to look into this, look into that. That’s how science is—you never get to know the whole picture.

In the spring of 2019, nobody was expecting Covid-19. Life was carrying on the way it always had. I was coming down with a cold that I couldn’t ignore for much longer. I rang my boss.

‘Hey, we can’t have you sneezing in the clean-room,’ he said. ‘Take enough time to recover, and then we’ll think whether it’s safe to take you back.’ He always made the same joke.

I decided to go to the local chemists to get a flu remedy, walking towards what passes for the high street round here, with its betting shops, charity shops and burger bars. That was the time that I first witnessed the strange performance.

Rita Draper Frazao

Rita Draper Frazão

A small cluster of people had gathered in front of a busker who was getting ready to start playing. I wandered over and stood at the back. You couldn’t call it a crowd or even an audience. It was just a few people drawn by casual curiosity—the way people will gather round to watch a paramedic treat an accident victim.

The musician was making elaborate preparations. He had hung a large sheet, fixed to some kind of scaffold structure that stood against the wall of the boarded-up building behind him. In the centre stood his saxophone, looking like a crucifix on an altar. It was placed on a stand which, in turn, sat on a low table, and beneath it, on the ground, lay a large, ceremonial embroidered red cloth. I was so absorbed in the spectacle that I forgot about my cold.

the story continues on the next page…..

The Virus

I’ve just written a short story called ‘The Virus’. I won’t give away the plot, but it was influenced by seeing so many surfers at Carcavelos beach. The beach is very close to the small apartment where I live, and I often walk along it. My friend, Bill Young, had lent me a book, called ‘21 Lessons for the 21st Century’, by Yuval Noah Harrari. Some elements of the story were in response to Harrari’s writing.

I read that unknown writers, like myself, should try and get something in print before trying to get a novel published. The idea for this story popped into mind, unbidden, and within a day I had written it, although I kept polishing it for longer. I wanted to try and limit myself to 2,000 words, and it exactly tipped the scales at that wordcount.

There is a question, though, which I ask myself. Does playing improvised music develop your ability to intuit form and duration? I feel that it does, but I am interested in the opinion of other musicians. Of course, I have sat through many concerts of improvised music, where countless opportunities to reach a satisfying conclusion were passed over, only to end limply after an excruciatingly long coda on the road to nowhere. Nevertheless, I have been both a participant and an audience member at events which, magically, concluded with jewel-like perfection. Sometimes, concerts have ended abruptly, mid-sentence, guided by a strange collective logic that is impossible to fathom, but which makes absolute sense at the time.

What causes a group of improvisers to stop in complete synchronicity like this? One element, I think, is a sense of what the group expresses in the moments leading up to such an abrupt truncation. It also requires a shared sensibility, not just to duration or form, but to collectively intuiting that an odd fragmented resolution, at that precise moment, provides the more complete musical statement.

I can’t help asking myself, does this sensibility transfer to writing? When I was writing each episode or chapter of ‘Mirror Trick’ I had a similar sense of appropriate duration. This active feeling, however, was much harder to retain throughout the course of a whole book, written over many months. In contrast, the shorter form of ‘The Virus’ felt more like a melody, sustained over several pages, and ending with a twist. It was not like the ‘mid-sentence’ endings that you sometimes hear in free improvisation, but something oblique, with a retrospective logic, closer to the kind of resolution that you find in conventional music.

Of course, you can easily point out that I am comparing ‘apples’ and ‘pears’: that the one is a collective experience and writing, whether it be music or literature, is usually a solitary one. My question is, though, can the sensibility developed and nurtured by group improvisation be transferred and applied in a similar way, when working on one’s own, writing stories?