|Vast: A Novel
Ch. VIX: Musical Battles
by Nicolas Travers ©
Colin's weekend starts smoothly. Jane is sufficiently impressed by his Sunday plans to let him stay in bed for an hour longer than usual, to make him toast and coffee for breakfast while he showers, and to chase Sarah out of the kitchen so that he can read his Saturday Daily Mail and Financial Times in peace. But sadly Sarah likes to live in a world of noise, and Colin finds it hard to focus on world events whilst Capital Radio is throbbing down at him from his daughter's bedroom.
He remonstrates mildly, because weekends are quiet, resting times, murmuring a deliberately low-level complaint as he reads his newspaper, hoping that Jane will trudge upstairs to broker a truce. But Jane shrugs, plainly not interested in squabbling, and turns Colin's remonstrance back on him with a shrug. "It's Saturday morning, darling." Her expression suggests that he is being picky, and a pain.
The noise continues, and seems to grow, drumming its way hard into the hit parade. Colin bears with it for as long as he can, and then slams his paper hard down on the table, and stands up. "I'm going upstairs." He glowers at his wife, it is an ultimatum.
Jane inspects him for a moment, shrugs again, and takes the paper. She starts to read, ignoring him completely, and Colin finds himself poised and erect, with a threat that must now be fulfilled.
He begins to climb the stairs, pauses for a moment as he thinks he hears Jane behind him, and then climbs on steadily.
"Colin." A sharp voice behind him makes him turn. Jane is standing at the foot of the stairs shaking her head. She looks angry. "Don't make a fool of yourself."
The noise from Sarah's room is now deafening. Colin grasps the door handle, twists it sharply, and shoves hard.
Sarah is in bed, propped up on her pillows in pink and white pyjamas, reading a magazine, ghetto blasting twin speaker stereo perched awkwardly on a small bedside table beside her. Her whole room, a cave of clutter, discarded clothing, and popstar posters, is shaking and resonating as Colin enters, and he stands in her doorway for a moment quite still, unnoticed and ignored. He debates whether to speak or to act, but the row is too much, and he hurls himself at the stereo.
Sarah comes to life at the same instant, and throws a protective arm out sideways. Her bedside table totters for an instant, and then falls, crashing her stereo out across the floor. Colin trips on some discarded clothing and finds himself buried nose down in rather less than fragrant underwear, with pain knifing at his left knee. But the noise is gone, and the bedroom is quite silent.
For a moment. Colin hears movement and looks up, to see his daughter hanging out of bed, frantically scrabbling at something on the floor.
"Shit, shit, shit." Sarah is spitting with fury. She realises that Colin is watching and points at the floor theatrically. "You've bust it." She scrabbles again and lifts one end of the stereo. "Look at it, father. You've busted my bloody stereo." Her voice is shrill and strident, and she balances the stereo like a missile.
Colin gathers himself in protectively, manages to disentangle himself from a heap of clothing, and struggles painfully to his feet, rubbing his knee with one hand. "You were making too much noise." He speaks sharply in counter-accusation.
"It was my bloody stereo." Sarah's face suddenly puckers, and she starts to weep in great gulping sobs. "I was just, trying, to listen, to the radio, on my, one free morning, in bed." Her sobs punctuate her howl of rage in sharp staccato breaks. "Then you, broke it, and you've ruined, my whole day."
Colin can hear steps on the stairs. Jane comes into the room, face set hard.
She glares at him. "What have you done to her?" Her voice implies injury, murder, possibly vicious incest and rape.
He glares back. "You know what I did. I came up here to stop her making so much bloody row."
Sarah is still sobbing, but more quietly now, so that she can follow events as they develop. "He broke my stereo, he's ruined my day." She chants her words as a tragic chorus pitched to underlie her parents' confrontation, and lays her stereo out reverently on the carpet, a sacrificial victim cut off suddenly in the fullness of its volume.
"You'll have to get her a new one." Jane speaks with grim determination, glowering at Colin, her jaw set very firm. "I told you not to come up, but you had to act up your heavy father bit, didn't you?"
It is a statement of accusation, not a query, and her eyes are cold blades of steel. Colin searches for words, but knows that he cannot counter a wife and daughter both baying for his blood. He searches for an escape, and picks up the stereo to move it out of his way. A lead is hanging loose at the back, trailing a plug, and he plugs it - tidyminded to the very end - into a wall socket. A sudden burst of noise shatters the small room, and breaks suddenly as he switches the stereo off.
For a moment Jane and Sarah Vast are frozen in astonishment. Then Jane turns on her heel, and Sarah grabs the silent stereo and clutches it to her breast.
Colin savours his moment of triumph. But he must also strike hard and fast to establish his victory, and he stands over his daughter, now taking his turn to be hardfaced. "Don't ever do that to me again."
Sarah is still sniffling. She looks up at him, pink eyes docile and yielding. "I'm sorry, Dad." But she is watchful behind her tears, and her words do not bow very deep in surrender.
Colin presses. "I said never again."
"Yes, Dad." Now Sarah's eyes flicker with a flash of disdain. It is plain that she has made her apology, and feels that she has jumped through the correct hoops: it is now time for him to leave her room.
Colin observes, and is livid. Fury starts to boil inside him, blinding him to all reason and good sense, and he feels a wave of violence rise, an urge to strike out and beat the living daylights out of his daughter. He pushes at her, sending her reeling back against the bedroom wall, and grabs the offending stereo from her hands as she falls back.
"Yes, Dad, what?" He almost shouts the words in his rage.
Sarah stares up at him, her eyes widening with terror, and stops sniffling, and surrenders. "I'm sorry, Dad. I'm sorry I made so much noise, Dad, and I won't do it again, really I won't." She almost gabbles her words in her penitence and submission.
"You promise?" Colin is an avenging angel, without fear and without mercy.
"I promise I won't ever do it again, Dad. With all my heart." Sarah gulps her vow, and makes a rapid crossing gesture over her puppyfat breasts.
It is a gesture from childhood, and pierces Colin's heart. His rage subsides as fast as it has erupted, and he takes a deep breath, and smiles down at her wearily, and he is a normal man again, a calm and placid father, and the storm is past. "I hope you don't."
Sarah returns his smile with the frankness of a daughter's love, and for a moment they are one. But the strength of their union is also an embarrassment, and Colin turns to leave.
"Dad." Sarah calls after him, and her voice is small and deliberately submissive and child-like. He turns back.
"May I listen softly?"
Colin is unsure whether to laugh or weep. He nods, and Capital Radio returns to the air again, but really very softly indeed, and Sarah waves to him as he closes her door, and he wonders how long it will be before they battle again.
Jane has returned to bed. She smiles at Colin invitingly as he enters their bedroom, and he notes that her nightdress barely covers her nipples, and this is also a yielding. But he ignores her smile and starts to dress: he has no wish to diminish his victory, and no certainty that a now contrite Sarah will not come charging into the room without word or warning, to build on his forgiveness and their new communion by seeking to share her latest hit parade favourite.
Jane is plainly put out at this unaccustomed rejection. But Colin feels good, and ignores her, selecting a favourite pale blue cotton shirt from his bedside chest of drawers to team with a pair of pale blue chinos, and pointedly dresses with his back to her before returning to the kitchen to make himself a fresh cup of coffee.
Saturday morning now becomes a paradise time. Jane and Sarah Vast are never so nice as in defeat, and cannot now exert themselves too much to please. Colin only has to wish, to have unspoken requests sought and satisfied. Not a whisper disturbs his reading, and cups of strong black coffee appear at his elbow at regular intervals, accompanied by a plateful of biscuits at eleven. Jane brightly suggests chauffeuring a husband and wife outing to a carboot sale at Gerrards Cross, following into a tasty late lunch centred on cold pork chop and tomato and onion salad, and vegetable baking is quite forgotten. She also rolls her eyes, implying further delights by way of carnal dessert later into the afternoon, when Sarah is out, and Colin is ranked as man, and master, in his own home.
The Gerrards Cross carboot sale is very hot, a dusty field alongside the A40 lined with serried rows of parked cars and vans set behind pasting tables laden with the accumulated detritus of domestic changes and unwanted memories: junk from uncounted attics and garages, metal racks of clothing grown too large, too small, or too much out of fashion, neat collections of tiny baby garments left behind in the remorseless onward march of time, potted plants presented by ambitious gardeners, and cut-price merchandise of all kinds.
Jane homes in on a scrum of women prodding and probing cardboard boxes set about a late arrival, and allows Colin to drift away on his own, idly inspecting occasional carboard boxes packed with long-playing records and music cassettes - for Colin has a penchant for classical music, but cannot often spare cash from his secret adventures to fund even the cheapest cut-price bargain in a conventional music store.
However he finds little that he fancies, for most of the records are scuffed and battered, and most of the cassettes purely pop, until he lights on a case filled with perhaps fifty to sixty cassettes, and is entranced. Most are classical, baroque compositions by composers he knows almost solely by name, works by Paisiello and Palestrina, Scarlatti and Soler, Vivaldi and Vieuxtemps, with a sprinkling of better known names, and the case is a treasure trove.
Colin browses happily, and his happiness is also agonising. He has a fiver, but how should he spend it, which should he choose?
He hesitates, and he dithers, and his dithering is all sheer joy, only marred by a grumpy vendor, a large beefy man with small, close-set eyes, who grumbles at Colin for his indecision, and rejects all attempts at conversation.
Colin also grows anxious when another buyer joins him, a man naked to the waist in the sun and tattooed on his forearms. The man starts disembowelling cassettes from their cases, examining them closely, and stacking them high at the side of the vendor's pasting table with a most professional hand, and it is soon plain that the newcomer intends buying virtually every cassette that he can. Colin realises that he is being boxed in by some kind of major collector or professional buyer and panics a little, picks a couple of cassettes at fifty pence apiece, and pays for them quickly, whilst the tattooed man mops up around him.
Jane is already back at their elderly Renault. She has found herself an antique, a plate decorated with hand-painted flowers, and coos happily in over her treasure as Colin takes one of the cassettes from its case to slot it into the car's stereo, waiting expectantly for music to fill his soul.
But the cassette is a failure. It plays a few bars, then emits a sharp squeak, and refuses to make another sound. Colin tries again, but the cassette is quite dead, and he discovers that it has come free from its spool, trailing a floating end of metal tape across his lap as he stares at it disconsolately.
The sight is a defeat, and Colin turns the cassette over and over in his fingers, feeling suddenly depressed. Common sense tells him that he should take it back to the beefy man and recover his money, but he suspects that the encounter will be uncomfortable, and he is tempted to throw the cassette away and take a loss on his buying.
However Jane will have none of this cowardice. She inspects the broken tape, and slots the cassette back into its box with determination. "Take it back, darling, straight away". Her voice is insistent.
Colin hesitates, and mumbles unhappily. But Jane is deaf, and it is clear that she is prepared to drag him back bodily if he refuses to go on his own. So he returns to the vendor slowly, and reluctantly.
The beefy man watches him approach, and scowls. Colin grits his teeth, and holds out the offending cassette.
"I bought this from you. It doesn't work."
The beefy man takes the cassette out of its case, inspects the loose end floating free, looks up, and shakes his head firmly. "Not from me, old son, you didn't. Not mine. Not mine at all." His small eyes are stone pebbles, his voice is hard, and he admits no contradiction.
"But I did, I just bought it from you." Colin can hear his voice rise in protest, but he already knows that he is locked in a losing battle. He stares at the man, his eyes begging him to give way, but it is plain that he is defeated, and the beefy man sneers openly.
"Sorry, squire. You got the wrong place." His voice is hewn from stone, and his tone is a flat rejection. He looks away, making clear that the conversation is at an end.
Colin is in despair. He knows he has no recourse, and knows that Jane will mock him. But there is little that he can do, bar stand and shout, and standing and shouting offer scant revenge.
He is about to turn away glumly when he sees the man with the tattooed forearms standing behind the beefy man, busily packing cassettes into two large plastic bags. The tattooed man is tall, slim, middleaged, with crewcut hair, and appears to be watching with a kind of detached amusement.
Colin's eyes beg again for help, but the tattooed man merely shrugs in disengagement. Then he sighs, appears to reach an unwanted decision, stops packing cassettes, and stares hard at the grumpy vendor.
"He's right, you know. He bought it from you." He speaks in a staccato tone, a voice of unexpected authority, and it is a judgement.
The beefy man bridles at this new attack, and glowers back. "You don't know what you're talking about." But now his sneer is gone, and his anger is less certain.
The tattooed man smiles, and it is a very cold and certain smile. "I was standing next to him. He bought two for a pound. Now he's brought them back, and he wants his money back."
The beefy man hesitates.
"You give it back, or I go with him to the organiser, and we'll have you run out of here." The tattooed man picks up his two plastic bags of cassettes, and weighs them thoughtfully in his hands. "I'll leave these as well." He drops the bags and takes a wallet from his hip pocket, riffling out a sheaf of notes into a small fan of value, shuffles them back into place and stuffs the wallet back into his pocket. It is a class act, a bravura act, and it works like a charm. The beefy man looks at the tattooed man, at his money, at Colin, and at the two bags of cassettes, and it is plain that he is reft between losing pride and losing a major sale. For a moment his face works with mixed anger, and indecision, and greed, and then greed carries the day. He reaches deep into a grubby trouser pocket and his mouth is a thin line of spite as he tosses a pound coin at Colin.
The tattooed man counts his money out at the same time, and the beefy man takes it without a word.
Colin waits as the tattooed man collects his bags of cassettes and follows him as he walks away. He is silent for a moment as they walk together, unsure what to say. He has made a fool of himself, and it is not a nice admission, but he has also been rescued, and he must speak. He clears his throat awkwardly. "I owe you a debt of gratitude."
The tattooed man shrugs slightly, as if rescues formed part of his natural lifestyle, and seems embarrassed. "Don't worry, it was a laugh." Then he smiles, and this time his smile is a kindness, and a concern. "But next time, when you buy cassettes, check them more carefully." He nods to Colin, and a moment later he is gone.
Colin is silent as Jane drives him back to Windsor. It is Saturday, and should be a rest day, a weekend day of peace and pleasure, but he is having a hard time. Humiliation is also diminishing, and Jane appears to have lost interest in trysting after his carboot debacle. She talks of making him lunch - Colin is relieved to hear that cold pork chop is still on the menu - and then going shopping with Sarah. Sex is implicitly relegated to later, or possibly Sunday evening, or to some indeterminate further time, and a hardness to Jane's jaw suggests that argument will only prolong delay. Colin broods on all this, and is bitter. He decides to retreat to his study and polish up his Sunday presentation plans.
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