In the 1970s, when I was a teenager, I was in love with Sebastian M., who was the leader of the most famous rock band in Poland. He was unusually handsome in a Mediterranean kind of way, having very dark hair, eyes and thick eyebrows, and gave the impression of being sad and oblivious to all the attention he received from the audience: an ultimate romantic. His Christian name, then unusual in Poland, had for me aristocratic connotations, although it was only in the mid-1980s when I learnt about Sebastian Flyte from the series Brideshead Revisited, which I watched on Polish television, and by this point my passion for Sebastian M. had cooled a bit. Still, I dreamt about meeting him and asking him where his sadness came from, but there was no chance that it would happen, and I didn’t belong to those girls who wrote love letters to their idols.
Decades passed, Sebastian M. grew old and I hit middle age in a foreign country. Nostalgia and YouTube spurred me to revisit the careers of my old favourites, who returned to me in all their youthful glory. In my fifties I became his fan again, in part because in his old songs I saw my own youth and innocence. I learnt then that life wasn’t kind to Sebastian. He lost his only son in a car crash, went through a difficult divorce, got into a conflict with the remaining members of his band who used its name without his permission and finally had a car accident himself, in which he seriously injured his leg, leading to impaired mobility. I was not surprised that he became more of a recluse than he ever was, in contrast to his ex-wife who was happy to share salacious details from their life. This course of events shed some light on his youthful sadness. It was possible that it was prophetic; he wanted to prepare himself for future disappointments by avoiding such exaggerated states, as ecstatic happiness or smug satisfaction. It never occurred to me that I would meet Sebastian in person and stopped desiring such a meeting, but sometimes life brings surprises, even in my advanced age. And so, when I returned to Poland to spend a year at a Polish university, I met a student who shared the name and surname with my old idol. Upon noticing it, I said to the young man: ‘Your parents must have been big fans of Sebastian M. the musician to give you such a name’.
‘Well, I’m not sure if my father was a fan of Sebastian’s music, but he is his nephew and they were always very close. My dad gave me his name in recognition of his love and respect. Since his uncle’s divorce, my dad looks after him and he spends all the holidays with us. He isn’t an easy person, but I like him. He knows many things and has a dry sense of humour.’
‘Oh, that’s interesting to hear,’ I said, but didn’t add anything, not to reveal my old fascination.
It happened that the young Sebastian became my favourite student that year. He turned out to be diligent and interested in his subject. He confessed that he wanted to work in academia and was keen to learn about the practicalities of becoming a university lecturer. I tried to put him off, telling him about the need to fulfil various requirements which do not guarantee success, the meagre awards, the frustrations, the pointlessness of most of what I do, but he was undeterred. Instead, one day he said: ‘You should meet my uncle, because you are like him: a pessimist and off-putter. I like it, because this is the opposite of bullshitting. Maybe you would like him too, as your kindred soul.’
‘I don’t think so; grumpy people don’t like other grumpy people,’ I said.
But then we started to talk about Sebastian’s songs and I revealed that I knew them well. I also told him that in my spare times I write semi-fictitious stories about musicians, whom I meet during my travels. This convinced him that I should meet his uncle and write about him, and I gave in, in part because I still had some questions to ask. And so one day I arrived in the house of this famous musician. Sebastian lived on his own in the leafy suburbs of Warsaw, in a small villa which he bought following his divorce. He invited me to his study, which was full of electronic equipment. This was to be expected in the studio of a contemporary musician, but still I was taken aback seeing the synthesisers, as they so much contrasted with my memory of Sebastian, who had nothing to defend himself but his guitar.
Sebastian sat me on the sofa while he himself hobbled towards an armchair in the corner of the study, near a large pot with a palm which threw a large shadow on him. I thought this seating arrangement was to prevent me from seeing him well, while allowing him to scrutinise me. Still, this plan worked only partially, because I could see his features quite well and the shadow revealed more than concealed, in the same way shadows were the defining features of vampires.
In some ways Sebastian looked very good for a man in his early seventies. He was slim, had few wrinkles and his short hair, although thin, covered the whole of his scalp. It was easy to recognise in him the young romantic in whom girls of my generation located their feelings. And yet, he’d changed significantly, because he projected now a different personality. His lower lip was slightly protruding, as if it had tried to entrap his upper lip, preventing it from expression of joy. There were two deep lines beginning in the corner of his lips that went down, making him look even more morose. His nose also got longer and his eyes were as sad as always, but more piercing, almost hostile. I expected all of this, so wasn’t particularly put off, but was thinking with sadness what a pleasure it would have been if the opportunity to meet him came to me forty years earlier. The challenge was to navigate the meeting in such a way that it wouldn’t become a nightmare, as I suspected that Sebastian wouldn’t help me in this task.
I started our conversation with saying: ‘I hope I won’t take too much of time.’
‘Time isn’t an issue,’ he replied. ‘I’m not hurrying anywhere. It is usually the quality of conversation that puts me off journalists.’
‘I’m not a journalist.’
‘Oh, yes, my nephew told me that you are some kind of scholar. It means you are some kind of intellectual; you know more than ordinary people.’
It was obvious that he used the ‘kind of’ to tease me, maybe even humiliate me, before I got the chance to do it myself. I didn’t know how to defend myself, even though I anticipated such a situation. Luckily, he was in an active aggressive mood, which I preferred over passive aggressive.
‘Is this true?’ he continued.
‘It is,’ I replied, knowing that being falsely modest would only encourage a further attack. ‘I needed to gather quite a lot of factual knowledge and familiarise myself with various theories, to get my PhD and publish books, but this is probably not what you have in mind. You are asking me if I’m a sage like Socrates or Kant. My answer is “no”. I’m nothing like that, but over the years I collected and digested some wisdom.’
‘That in order for us to be happy we have to first miss out on some opportunities and then make a conscious decision to fulfil them. The happiness can only ever be experienced through the danger of being missed. This is from Walter Benjamin.’
‘It’s indeed interesting and might explain why happiness eluded me.’
‘Because I never missed any opportunities, so I cannot come back and capture what I have missed. And what I’ve got in life feels worthless.’
‘Like fame?’ I asked.
‘If you didn’t want to be famous, why did you joined a band?’ I asked.
‘I guess this was because I didn’t trust myself. I wanted to learn from others. Only then I discovered that I was better than my band: I had more ideas, I was the best composer, apparently I was also the best looking, so I was treated as the leader.’
‘So you weren’t a natural leader?’
‘Not really. Or at least, I never led from the front, only stepping in when there was a crisis. I left the main decisions to the others. It was B. who always handled relations with the press. I was just standing by, smiling shyly.’
‘I noticed that when I was young. B. was always answering the questions and you looked on, like the Wanderer above the Sea of Fog from Caspar David Friedrich’s painting.’
‘I don’t think I looked on; more likely I was shoe-gazing. But the truth is that I never liked fame. Giving interviews, being photographed, signing autographs – it felt completely fake and bored me to death. I couldn’t understand how anybody of a sound mind could enjoy it.’
‘You didn’t think you were blessed by the love of those who wanted your autograph?’ I asked.
‘No, I despised these people for putting me on a pedestal. I couldn’t forgive them for having such low standards and also felt that they mistook me for somebody else. They made me to feel like a fake, like a shell. Fame was wasted on me. It should be given to somebody who craves it, like my nephew.’
‘I liked the fact that you seemed not to care about fame. And thanks to fame people were attracted to your music,’ I said. ‘So maybe fame was a little price to pay to give joy to so many people, including myself.’
‘It’s nice for you to say it, but you don’t need to flatter me. I know my value,’ he said.
‘Would you prefer if I insulted you?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know what I want, but I’m sure I haven’t received it from anybody for many years,’ he said.
There was a silence, which felt longer that its true duration and made me feel nervous, as it required me to fill it with something which wouldn’t worsen the situation. And so I asked:
‘Are you working on something new?’
‘I’m always working on something new.’
‘Can you play it for me?’
‘Okay,’ he said, probably because he also felt the weight of our conversation and yet, as a host, couldn’t throw me out, at least not without offending his grand-nephew. He hobbled to the computer and pressed a button. The music he played was beautiful and multi-layered, most likely reflecting the use of synthesisers and acoustic instruments. Listening to it I was thinking what Marcel Proust said about writers – that they do not need to be intelligent, only know where to put ‘their mirror’, to capture the right people from the right angle. But could the same be said about musicians? What do they capture and how?
‘It’s a great piece,’ I said, when he finished, happy to be sincere.
‘Thank you. You’re very kind,’ he said, for the first time during our meeting shedding his cynical mask.
‘Where do these melodies come from? What inspires you?’ I asked.
‘I was asking myself this question and I think what always inspired me or rather what made me work was a curiosity about what people would do with my melodies. Therefore I liked to write songs and film music rather than, let’s say, symphonies. I respect composers of symphonies or piano concerts, but if I was doing things like that, I would feel naked.
‘It’s interesting. All the musicians who I’ve met were distrustful of words.’
‘Well, I’m not.. I’ve had the pleasure of working with the best Polish poets, so I don’t understand why so many people now prefer to sing some meaningless drivel in English.’
‘I couldn’t agree with you more,’ I said.
I decided to leave before the conversation became difficult again or transformed into another heavy silence.
‘It was very nice talking to you,’ I said. ‘I’m grateful for granting me the opportunity.’
‘The pleasure was mutual. I will have to check what you quoted from Benjamin. Sorry for not offering you anything to drink. Since I became a cripple, I stopped preparing my own meals or even drinks. I’m waiting for my maid to make a coffee for me. If she takes a day off, I don’t eat all day.’
It felt like he wanted me to offer him sympathy, but these words made me again hostile towards him. ‘A lazy bugger,’ I thought, feeling sorry for the young Sebastian and his father for having to look after him. Hopefully they would inherit what remained of his wealth.
‘Did you like my uncle?’ asked the young Sebastian the next time I saw him.
‘Well, he is quite a character,’ I said, mindful not to hurt the feelings of my young friend.
A week later he told me that Sebastian had invited me again, this time for supper in a restaurant near his house.
I hesitated about what to do, as I wasn’t sure whether meeting Sebastian again would help me finish my story or whether there was any point to it – this story was already finished.
Ewa Mazierska is historian of film and popular music, who writes short stories in her spare time. She published over thirty of them in ‘The Longshot Island’, ‘The Adelaide Magazine’, ‘The Fiction Pool’, ‘Literally Stories’, ‘Ragazine’, ‘ ‘BlazeVox’, ‘Red Fez’, ‘Away’, ‘The Bangalore Review’, Shark Reef’ and ‘Mystery Tribune’, among others. In 2019 she publisher her first collection of short stories, ‘Neighbours and Tourists’ (New York, Adelaide Books). Ewa is a Pushcart nominee and her stories were shortlisted in several competitions. She was born in Poland, but lives in Lancashire, UK.