A Stringed Instrument Ch. 04byBramblethorn©
"Wog" = Australian slang for Greeks and other Southern Europeans. It used to be a racist insult, but it's been almost entirely reclaimed, and these days it's mostly used self-referentially by Australians of Mediterranean ancestry.
I didn't see Phoebe again before she went back to Sydney. She was doing family stuff. I was racking up overtime fixing a few more glitches in the company website, logging every minute of it, and wondering whether Phoebe thought of me as often as I thought of her. She sent me a happy-Christmas text on Christmas Day, and I sent one back.
Then I spent the next couple of days fretting over whether and when to call her. I over-think these things: what if I call at the exact wrong moment? What if I miss calling at the right moment? What if I call in the middle of a performance and her phone goes off and it wrecks the entire day? And so on. I'm sure it sounds neurotic — well, okay, it is neurotic — but in my defence, if you'd dated some of my exes you'd be twitchy about these things too. I'd go into details but trust me on this, you're better off without them.
Some people deal with this sort of dilemma by resorting to alcohol for courage. Me, I outsourced:
"Aleks, should I call her today? Or leave it a bit longer?"
His eyes were more bloodshot than usual. He'd gone to a Christmas shindig organised by like-minded souls, and hadn't come home for two days. Now he was working through an epic hangover.
"Just give her damn call already. Today just as bloody good as tomorrow. But if you call today you don't ask me same damn question tomorrow."
"Fair enough." Not quite Plato, but it was the answer I wanted to hear and that's usually good enough for me. I slunk back to my room and dialled before I could change my mind but what if she's hoping you won't call —
"Hi Phoebe, it's Yvonne."
"Oh, I was just wondering when I'd hear from you! How was your Christmas?"
"Oh, pretty good. No family dramas. And yours?"
"Living the wog stereotype. We'll be eating the leftovers until Easter."
"Santa bring you anything fun?"
"Couple of books, gift voucher to get my bow re-haired."
"Is that good?"
"Oh yeah. Mine needs it badly, and that's a hundred dollars right there for a cello. And here I was thinking I'd be on the naughty list for sure."
I was trying to come up with a witty response when I heard a tap-tap-tap at Phoebe's end, and she grumbled. "One o'clock already? Sorry. Didn't notice the time, that'll be my student at the door. Look, I've got rehearsals tonight, can I call you back some other time?"
She called back two days later, and we chatted about this and that: work, rehearsals, books we'd read. I wanted to say more, tell her that I wanted to go to bed with her again, but somehow the conversation never drifted in that direction — was she avoiding the subject? — and I didn't want to force it.
At midnight on New Year's Eve, having heard nothing further from her, I sent her a message:
Happy New Year. Wish you were here! Y.
And to you too! All the best - Phoebe.
And that was that. I wanted to ask her: Do you still think about me? Do you remember my touch and my taste? Should I just take a hint and leave you alone, straight girl? But without the courage to force things to a resolution I held off, hoping things would resolve themselves some other way.
On January 3, I went back to work. Things were pretty dead there with most of the staff still on holiday, and I needed something to take my mind off Phoebe. So I used the time to do some housekeeping. When I'd first arrived at RJC I'd soon discovered that my predecessor hadn't believed in little things like documenting key systems. Maybe that was his idea of job security — they can't fire you if they can't replace you — but it offends my professional pride, and I was glad to have a chance to get stuck into doco without being interrupted every five seconds.
Next morning Susan called me into her office. My probation still had two weeks to run, but since she was going to be on holiday over that time we agreed to get the discussion and the paperwork out of the way. It was short and painless; she was happy with my work, and had no reservations about recommending I stay on. I thanked her, and was about to get up and go back to my work when she stopped me.
"But this isn't a one-way discussion, Yvonne. I'm happy to have you working here, but are you happy to stay? Is this a job you want to be doing?"
I screwed up my face trying to answer that one. "Um... not sure? Look, it's interesting work here, even if sometimes I feel like I'm out of my depth. But I still don't, I don't feel like I really fit in with the people here, do you know what I mean?"
She nodded briskly. "Look, Yvonne, I won't lie, I've been here sixteen years and I'm still not a full member of the boys' club. I took time off when I had Zara, and I wasn't sure whether I wanted to come back. But it's better than it used to be. And you might not see it, but you're making progress here; when people come to you with a problem, they know you're going to solve it, not just make excuses for why it can't be done. That gets you a long way."
"Yvonne, if you want my advice? Hang in another six months and see how you feel then. If you're still not comfortable then, go ahead and look elsewhere, and I'll give you a good reference. If you think you can stand six months here?"
"Yes. I can do that." Chalk up another victory for Susan's sales technique.
"Good. Now, while we're here... professional development. I've been looking over what you've sent me and I hadn't realised quite how much time you're spending on the website. I agree, if it's generating that much work, it makes sense to get you some training for that. Any thoughts?"
"Well. I've looked at a few different options. Let me show you..." I borrowed her keyboard and pulled up a couple of webpages. "These guys are good, but kinda pricey." I might not be a salesman, but one thing I knew, it's easier to convince people they're getting a good deal if you start with a more expensive option. "They do have a cheaper two-day option, but it's too basic. Now, these guys... they have a five-day option for twenty-five hundred, and that looks like it covers everything I need."
Susan put on her bifocals and looked at the screen. "Melbourne, Melbourne... February. Hmm. I think I can persuade Peter to authorise the money, but it'll be difficult having you away for a whole week." We had a service agreement with an external provider in case of real emergencies but unless RJC wanted to pay exorbitant callout fees, minor stuff would have to wait until I got back.
"Yeah. About that, I was thinking... the one in Sydney is in two weeks. It should still be pretty quiet here, and I've been meaning to visit Sydney for a while." Or at least since last week. "I can cover airfare, and I've got an aunt I can stay with."
She shook her head, tut-tutting me like a benevolent schoolteacher correcting my homework. "Oh, Yvonne, it's a good thing you're not in sales. Ask for what you want and don't bargain yourself down, that's my job. Now, if you're staying with your aunt, I think we can cover airfare. It's still cheaper than having you away in February."
So we pencilled in arrangements. After that the conversation drifted to friendly chit-chat, and eventually I thought to ask: "So, how's Zara doing?"
"Better, I think? Still not sure how her friends are going to react if she comes out to them, but she seems more relaxed since school hols started. We're going camping next week and I hope she'll unwind a bit more then."
"Well, good luck with it all, and give me a ring if you need anything."
"Thanks." And with that we made our excuses, and I got back to work. On my way home I texted Phoebe:
Coming to Syd for work Jan 16-20. Feel like catching up?
Sure! Got place to stay?
Haven't organised anything yet. Which was true enough; I could usually count on Aunt Penny for a spare room, but I hadn't called her yet.
Can stay at my place, if you like? Pokey but clean.
I would like.
BTW - I have concert on 19th. Welcome to come watch.
Sounds fun, save me a ticket.
Two weeks later I stepped off the plane at Sydney Domestic, rubbing my eyes, and headed for the baggage carousel. The course started at nine sharp, which meant a six a.m. flight, which meant getting up at hours that Aleks would have considered an early bedtime.
The course, well, you're not here to read about that, are you? Let's just say it was a good course, as these things go. For all that my mind was on other things, I learned several useful tricks during the first day. Some of the other students invited me to come along for drinks afterwards; I would have turned them down, but Phoebe had told me she'd be out rehearsing until seven, so I killed time chatting in town and sipping lemon-lime-and-bitters until it was time to go catch a North Shore train.
I'd messaged ahead, and as I came through the ticket barrier Phoebe was there to meet me. "Hi there. Have a good flight?"
"Oh yeah, not bad." I yanked my suitcase through the barrier before the gates could close on it.
"Need help with that?"
"Nah, I'm fine. It's pretty light."
"My place is about five minutes that way."
Phoebe didn't seem to be in a talkative mood, so we walked mostly in silence along a leafy street lined with grand old houses in varying states of repair. It wasn't the cheapest area she could've chosen to live, but I suppose it put her close to private-school kids whose parents could pay for cello lessons.
"And here we are."
At first I thought she was joking. The house in front of us was much too large for one musician on a budget. But then she led me past the front door, down the side of the house and through a gate, and I realised there was a granny flat in the back garden.
"Welcome to my humble abode." She unlocked the door and waved me in. She'd been telling the truth when she said it was pokey; the flat looked as if it had once been a two-car garage, one quarter of it walled off for the bathroom and everything else together in one L-shaped room.
In one corner stood her cello, plain and unadorned. To my untrained eye it was quite unremarkable; it could as easily have been a Stradivarius or cheap mass-produced tat. Only the excessively sturdy carrying case suggested that it might be an expensive piece of equipment.
I set my suitcase down near the door. As she followed me in, I turned to give her a hello-hug. She returned my embrace briefly, but as I moved to peck her on the cheek she slipped from my arms and moved away.
"I don't think that's a good idea, Yvonne." She'd put the kitchen bench between herself and me.
"Oh?" I tried not to sound hurt, but I daresay I failed. "I'm confused."
"You're confused." She nodded, looking down at the fake marble bench-top, and took a long breath in. "Yvonne. I like you a lot. I don't want to hurt you, but I've done something stupid."
"If you're not interested in me, please say so." Please don't.
"You, um. When I met you, I had a boyfriend." Uh-oh. "We'd been together three years. I broke up with Luke on New Year's Eve."
"Oh, crap. You should —" I checked myself. Now that I thought about it, I hadn't given her much opportunity to mention it before dragging her into the wardrobe. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to —"
"Don't beat yourself up." She was quiet, still avoiding my eyes. "We should've split a year ago. I just didn't want to admit that things weren't working. I never thought I'd be someone to cheat on a boyfriend."
"Phoebe, I started it."
"Yes, and I let it go on. I should've told you at the time, I should've told you afterwards. I just... um." She was fidgeting, fingertips grasping the bench. "It's been so long since I felt desired. Being held by somebody who wanted to hold me. I didn't want to spoil that. Selfish of me."
"Oh. Um. I do desire you, Phoebe."
"I know... look, I don't know how to say this." Her fingertips had turned white, the blood squeezed out of them. "When I was at uni, I was a bit of a slut. I went to bed with a lot of guys, didn't mind who, as long as they wanted me. Because I like to be wanted. And I like sex, I do." Her hair had fallen down, shielding her face. "But if I'm with somebody, it should be because I want them. That person, somebody unique, not just a pair of arms to hold me and lips to kiss me. It's not fair to lead them on just because they want me, and I don't think it's good for me."
I was hurting, but I could hear her voice on the edge of cracking, and I forced myself to be gentle. "And that's what I am? A pair of arms and lips?"
"I... I don't know." She looked up at me, and I could see her eyes were bright with unspilled tears. "I wasn't kidding before. I've always seen myself as straight. Teenage crushes, daydreams, it was always some guy or other. George Clooney, or the neighbour's boy. So... you're fantastic, I really like you, but I don't know if I'm just enjoying the attention. And if I am, that's not enough. God, I'm messed up right now, I just don't know anything. Yvonne, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have invited you here, it was selfish of me."
She was trembling. I couldn't bear it. I stepped around the counter and hugged her, and this time she didn't protest. "Please don't beat yourself up. I'm not angry with you. Look, I'm happy to sleep on the sofa. Or call my aunt and stay at her place. But before you decide about that, can I give one piece of advice?"
"What?" She'd stopped shaking but still sounded miserable, her shoulders pressed against my chest, arms wrapped around herself.
"Have something to eat first." There were a couple of take-away menus on the fridge, and I steered her toward them. "Pizza? My shout."
"I'm not hungry."
"I know. But trust me on this, eat something anyway. Things like this always seem worse on an empty stomach. Now, since I'm ordering a pizza for you whether you eat it or not, what sort of pizza would you like?"
A drawn-out sigh. "Potato and rosemary. Small. And I'll pay."
"Fifty-fifty." I looked through the menu. "Pumpkin pizza? Is that a thing?"
"Uh-huh. It's okay if you like pumpkin."
I dialled, still holding her, and ordered. When I'd finished on the phone, I let go of her and put the menu back. "Half an hour. Look, I'm sweaty, would it be okay if I used your shower while we wait?"
"Yeah, go ahead." Weary and flat.
I took my suitcase into the bathroom — dressing in front of her would've been awkward — and stared at myself in the mirror while I tried to mentally decompress. I had reason enough to be angry with Phoebe; I don't handle surprises well, and I'd come a long way in the hope of staying with her, only to learn that she'd been lying to me by omission. Even now, seeing a second toothbrush by the sink gave me a twinge of resentment.
But let's be honest: I've danced with the fuckup fairy more than a few times on my own account, and I try to make allowances for human frailty in others. So I stepped into the shower and let the water run until I'd talked myself down from the temptation to soothe my own feelings by hurting hers.
As I stepped out of the shower and reached for my towel, the music started in the next room. There aren't many classical pieces I can recognise by ear, but thanks to David Bowie I know Bach's Cello Suite No. 1 moderately well. On this occasion it was being played too fast and too loud, and more than a little erratically.
I dressed and walked out of the bathroom. Phoebe was sitting on a stool with her back to me, attacking the cello, and from the set of her shoulders I could guess what she was about. When I'm upset I like to switch on the computer and kill orcs until I'm feeling calm again, and that was the attitude she projected just then.
As I watched she came to the end of the Prelude with a forceful and off-key chord. I took a step toward her, intending to make my presence known, but she launched straight into the second movement without a break. So I sat down on the sofa to watch and listen.
She started the Allemande as she'd finished the Prelude, dissonant and rough. But as it progressed I could hear her style coming together, mellowing until the notes were clear and flowing smoothly, and the set of her shoulders was less about tension and more about technique. I'd never heard her play until now; as I've said, I'm not a great classical buff, but whether it's needlepoint or Bach there's something enthralling about seeing an artist absorbed in her work.
From there she glided into the Courante and onwards. As she started the Sarabande, her stance reminded me of something: right hand around the cello's torso, left high on the neck, and I thought: I wish you were holding me like that.
And last of all, after the Minuet, she summoned a burst of energy for the Gigue, and yes: I wanted to feel that passion, that focus, directed at me.
And with perfect timing, as she played the last note, footsteps crunched outside and the pizza man knocked on the door. Phoebe turned around slowly, and looked surprised to see me there behind her; from the look in her eyes, she wasn't quite back on the ground yet.
I rose from the sofa. "Um, I'll get that."
"Oh... thank you." She sounded embarrassed, as if I'd been watching her naked. Which I suppose I had.
I paid him and set the boxes down on the table, then hunted out a couple of plates for the two of us. Apparently Phoebe had worked up an appetite; she scarfed two slices before uttering another word.
"Yvonne, how long were you listening?"
"Almost all of it."
"Then I apologise for the beginning. Nobody should have to hear me scraping like that."
"Oh, I don't know. It was quite expressive."
"Ha." She devoured half of another slice, then nodded at me. "You were right about the food. I do feel a lot better after that."
"I'm glad. Now, if you think it's better that I don't stay here, I can make other arrangements. It's okay, I promise."
She patted my hand. "Look, I think it'll be okay. You can have the bed tonight, I'll take the sofa."
"You sure?" I looked doubtfully at the sofa, which was well past its prime. "I don't mean to kick you out of your own bed."
"I'll be fine. I've slept on it before, plenty of times. Now —" she looked at her watch "— it's only seven. What would you like to do? Still got time to head into town and hit the nightlife if that's your thing."
"Nah, not really." And from the look on her face, not hers either. "I've had enough travel for one day. You know what would really hit the spot?"
"Just you and me. A friendly evening in, no sex." She raised an eyebrow. "And..." I walked over to pick up an object I'd spotted earlier on her bookshelf. "A pack of cards."
"Sure. Why not?"
We started out with cribbage. I was a little rusty and Phoebe narrowly won the first game, but by then I'd gotten back into the groove and just pipped her in the second. She made a couple of silly mistakes in the third, and when I finished twenty-two points ahead she shook her head ruefully. "At least I'm not playing for clothes this time."
It was my turn to raise an eyebrow.
"College days. First time I'd lived away from home. I was always terrified Dad would find out what I'd gotten up to and thrown a fit."
"And your grandma?" I picked up the cards and started shuffling as Phoebe cleared the board.
"Not so much, actually. On my fourteenth birthday she took me aside and told me all about safe sex. Nothing I hadn't already learned in school, but still."