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Variations on a Theme

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Rufus Sixsmith had no idea what had sent his customary lunchtime stroll into unknown territory. It had not been a conscious decision, which was hardly unusual these days; the weight of his conscience often distracted him from the outside world, as he considered his many choices that weren’t choices at all; and his mind was caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, just as his eyes happened to catch those of an angel.

He stopped dead in his tracks and gaped at the shop window for what felt like hours as the blood pounded in his ears. The apparition had long-since turned away from him, hunching over a box of records, but even from this view there was no mistaking the figure, poorly dressed and criminally hirsute though it was. He knew it far too well to be fooled by such disguises and the passage of forty years. He walked towards the door of the record shop without taking his eyes off him, half hopeful and half terrified that the man would turn again and Sixsmith would see he had been mistaken.

The man turned around as he entered the shop. He had not been mistaken. 

‘Hey, can I help you?’ The voice, with its American twang and sloppy enunciation, was jarring but this was still undeniably Robert Frobisher, and yet it couldn’t possibly be. He’d helped carry that man’s coffin, had been the only one to stay for the burial itself, and that had been a lifetime ago. His Robert, the real Robert, would be stooping and grey by now. He stared, aware that he was staring, and yet utterly unable to stop. He drank the sight in, though the alien features amongst the familiar merely heightened the terrible, he still couldn’t look away.

‘Looking for anything in particular?’

Sixsmith could see the man, evidently the shopkeeper here, beginning to grow annoyed or concerned and felt an unreasonable stab of anger at not being recognised by this stranger who was not a stranger. He suddenly began to wonder if he was dead, if the Swanneke problem had caught up with him in some terrible way, and if he was in his own personal hell being taunted with this impostor.

‘Where am I?’ Was all he could manage to say.

‘Do you need me to call someone?’ He asked with a sympathetic look. Sixsmith kept staring, left momentarily numb by this disinterested pity. The man tried another tack.

‘What year is this, and who is the president?’ He went on slowly, and Sixsmith’s numbness was replaced by intense embarrassment. He had never felt the ignominy of old age before, he had watched stoically as his youth, completely wasted on him after that terrible day in Edinburgh, had passed him by. To be treated like a doddering old fool, by this man, of all people, was too much.

‘No, quite alright, just had something stuck in my throat.’ He said after feigning a coughing fit. ‘I was thinking of… buying a record.’ He finished, aware of how unconvincing he sounded as the man eyed him suspiciously.

Charlie looked at this strange customer properly, in the eyes, for the first time, unable to shake the feeling they’d met before, though he was somehow sure it wasn’t at the shop. He was just about to ask if the other man remembered him from anywhere, when he broke the silence.

‘I suppose you must enjoy music, to work in a place like this.’

‘Sure, who doesn’t?’

An pause followed as they eyed one another, one eagerly, the other warily, with the unshakeable feeling he was being inspected.

‘Do you play?’


‘Do you play an instrument? Such as the piano?’

‘Hell no, I just listen to the stuff.’ He replied with a laugh.

‘I see.’ He looked absurdly dismayed at this and Charlie was sure he’d just failed whatever inspection he had been subjected to.

‘I wanted to as a kid, the guitar though, not the piano, but my mom said it was too pricey for a hobby.’ He said defensively.

‘You could now, though.’

‘Yeah, I guess so.’ Charlie replied, laughing.

‘Perhaps you should.’

‘Maybe.’ He said, with no thought of doing so, but even this non-committal reply was met with a look of satisfaction, and the whole thing was too weird. He stepped away slightly and turned his back, shuffling a stack of records perfunctorily. He looked up again just in time to see the man leaving the shop, pausing to shut the door carefully behind him but not looking up.


That happened to be the very night Sixsmith was stuck in a lift with Ms Rey, confronted, for the second time in a day, by the ghost of Robert Frobisher. He didn’t know what it meant, but this was more than coincidence, Sixsmith was sure of that, in spite of his usually rational self. He sat up in his hotel room half the night, staring out at the city’s lights as he clutched a bundle of letters that he didn’t need to look at to read and by first light he knew what he had to do. Robert was remembered, by all others that cared to remember him, as a vain and frivolous creature but he had died for his integrity. Could he himself not even make a telephone call for his own? Gathering up his own courage, he resolved to call Ms Rey and tell her everything. There was just one other thing he wanted to do before he doomed himself to a (probably short) life of looking constantly over his shoulder. 


Charlie looked up to see the old man from the day before shuffling in awkwardly, hugging a record-shaped parcel to his chest like it was the most precious thing in the world.

‘Hello again.’ He said stiffly, and Charlie inwardly teased the man’s stuffiness fondly, disturbing himself in the process as he remembered that this stranger was nothing and no one to him – though he had already picked out one of the guitars, and it sat in the back office with an elementary guitar songbook. The old man in front of him was a screaming queen, no doubt about that, but he himself was definitely not, as his long-suffering girlfriend and the well-thumbed calendar in the office could attest. And even if he had been, he wasn’t exactly going to grab his ankles for someone old enough to be his grandfather-

Just for a moment he was transported to a rich, dark room, and found himself face to face with a young man, dressed in old-fashioned clothes and with a haircut a Nazi would be proud of, but still undeniably beautiful. As the book-lined walls turned back into stacks of records, he realised with a chill it had been the same man that was standing in front of him now.

He had a strange compulsion to tell the stranger what he’d just seen, as crazy as it was, but before he could open his mouth the record was pressed into his hands.

‘I think, I hope, this might be of interest to you.’

‘We don’t buy or sell much classical stuff.’ He said doubtfully as he took out the sleeve, ‘and I’ve never heard of this guy before. Or this piece.’

Sixsmith felt his heart sink and realised that, of all the absurd things, part of him had genuinely, truly, hoped that seeing this would trigger a memory, would cause the years to fall away, would send him back to that damned bell tower and make him look first. Voiced consciously this sounded insane; he had no idea of the logistics of reincarnation, something he pointedly didn’t believe in anyway, despite present circumstances.

‘I’m not surprised, there can’t be more than a handful of these in the entire country.’ He lied; in fact he was fairly sure this was the only copy within five thousand miles. Charlie guessed he was trying to drive up the price, though the man hardly looked down to his last dollar.

‘Might be interested. How much d’you want for it?’ He said, staring disinterestedly out of the window; two could play at this game.


He turned sharply, unable to hide his surprise. 

‘What, nothing at all?’

The old man shook his head with a sad smile  

‘You sure you don’t want to keep it? You might want to listen again. You said it yourself, you’re not gonna find another one.’ He asked, cursing himself inwardly for not just taking the damn thing.

‘Every note of it breaks my heart and I don’t need a recording, it’s written into my soul and I hear it in my dreams.’ Sixsmith thought.

‘Quite sure, thank you. Please do give it a listen, though.’  Sixsmith said.

‘I have to, to check it’s not scratched.’

Sixsmith, certain in an undefinable but dreadful way that he would never pass this way again, took one last, lingering look at the familiar, alien features, desperately wishing to be recognised, knowing that he wasn’t. Charlie looked back, again unable to shake the feeling of déjà vu.

‘Well, I had better go. I hope you enjoy it. Goodbye.’ He said hurriedly, turning and leaving without giving Charlie the opportunity to respond.

That night he struggled his way through guitar exercises until he’d successfully butchered Camptown Races along with his fingertips, grinning smugly at the contents of the office, until his eyes fell on the record.

‘Might as well check it now.’ He said to himself, as he began to play it. He sat, transfixed and dumbfounded, as it played through. He played it again, and wept uncontrollably and thought, inexplicably, of grey skies and stolen bicycles. He played it a third time, and the beauty of it sent shivers down his spine, and took him back to sunny quadrangles and Mediterranean shores he had never visited in his life.

When a call came the next day specifically about the Cloud Atlas Symphony, it seemed like the right thing to do to sell it to the woman. But not before he’d made a bootleg for himself. 

He had never been a religious person but for the rest of his life he maintained a devout, if vague, faith in that encounter. It was a running joke amongst his friends that after a certain amount of pot one of three things was bound to happen; he’d try to tell you about his guardian angel, try to make you listen to an old tape recording, or insist on playing the guitar surprisingly well.