A Stringed Instrument Ch. 05


Need another two feet to make the hold. Need to hold on when I get there. Inventory?

Left leg: fully extended. Nothing from there until I find a higher foothold.

Right leg: off at angle, tremor getting worse. Still got some power but going to push me out to the left, away from the hold.

Left arm: hanging on, not for much longer. Might help pull me to the right, counteract the knee? But not enough power. Not going to catch me if I fail and need to come down again.

Right arm: strength fading. Need it to hang on to the last hold, long enough to get a foothold with my leg. But not going to take the jolt if I have to hang on hard. Need control.

Core: Exhausted. Flashing "low battery" warning.

Launch from leg? Probably miss the hold. Not enough control, even if I catch it I won't be able to keep it.

Find another hold? Nothing good nearby. Crappy little tiny things for super-climbers.

Change the problem? Swap hands? Swap feet? No, tips me too far off-balance.

Only one thing to change.

In an instant:

I bore down on my right knee, pushing up with as much power as I could muster. My hip spasmed, threw me off-balance, and I went out to the left, away from the last hold, away from the wall. But I wasn't aiming for the hold. I arched back, out into space, and groped blindly above me as my left hand slipped off the wall.

Apogee, weightless for a moment at the top of my leap — it must have been the tiniest leap I'd ever made — and my searching fingers brushed the bottom of the pulley.

Then gravity took me, and I fell, and the rope caught me.

Phoebe caught me. Brought me back to earth, unharmed. I tried to land on my feet, but my legs were limp and I folded into a pile on the floor, not far from where the blindfold had landed.

"Did you touch it?"

"Just." I had to take a couple of breaths before going on. "If that counts."

"Of course it counts!" The look on her face, well, it was worth falling off a wall to see that look.

I sat there for a little while before I felt like moving, and Phoebe had to help me take off the safety line. I was as weak as a kitten and couldn't undo my own knots, nor work the spring on the carabiner. She helped pull me to my feet and I stood there a little while until I felt like I could walk.

Soon enough I started to shiver. On the wall I'd been hot, burning through energy; now I'd stopped, and I was standing in an air-conditioned gym in a T-shirt soggy with sweat, my body still flooded with adrenaline.

"I — I could do with a shower."

"Me too. I brought you a towel."

We signed out — it took me some work but I managed to get the hired shoes off my feet and the harness off my body — and staggered to the shower. Phoebe opened the cubicle door for me, then hesitated. "Will you be all right in there, or do you need help?"

"I can manage." I put my things down on the bench, and my brain caught up with my mouth. "But I wouldn't say no."

She grinned and looked quickly around the change-room — nobody was nearby — then slipped into the cubicle with me, closing the door behind her. We stripped, and I turned on the water, and just as I was about to step in Phoebe surprised me: she put one arm around my waist, stuck out her tongue, then moved in and licked my neck daintily.

"Mmm. Salty."

"Not surprised. I'm sweating like a pig."

"That's the idea." Phoebe moved around me, stepped back into the water, pulled me after her. "So, how do you feel?"

I was naked, my hands clasping her hips, my breasts bumping against hers. "Exhausted. But great. If I had any energy at all I'd have pounced you already and pinned you to the wall. And then I'd grab you by the hair and make you go down on me right here."

She blushed, dropped her eyes. "You're such a bad girl."

"Mmm." I leaned forward, whispered in her ear. "And I want you. As soon as I have my strength back, you'd better watch out." I flicked her earlobe with my tongue, felt her shiver.

Phoebe stood up on tiptoes, whispered in my ear. "Looking forward to it." And one hand squeezed my butt briefly, before she went in search of the soap.

While we were towelling ourselves off I thought of something. "Were those Luke's friends? Earlier on?"

"Oh, yeah. Apparently not impressed with me." She sighed. "Fuck 'em."

"Well, I like you."

"Yes, but you're a sweetheart." She kissed me on the cheek. "I'll be okay. Just wish I'd handled things better. They'd probably still be pissed at me but at least I wouldn't be wondering if they were right."

I couldn't think of anything helpful to say so I hugged her instead, which seemed to work. "Come on, let's get our clothes on and find dinner. I'm starving."

"Me too."

Phoebe had packed a spare T-shirt for me and a pair of track pants; both were a bit on the small side for me, and the legs were a couple of inches short, but they were wearable. There was a Chinese place nearby, and since the summer evening was pleasantly warm we sat in the garden gorging ourselves. In between dumplings, we talked.

"Now, tomorrow night." Phoebe snared a dumpling between chopsticks, held it over the dipping sauce. "We're rehearsing in the afternoon and then going straight to the venue, so you'll have to make your own way there. I've asked them to put your name on the door, and after we're done we can hang around and watch the main act."

"Sounds good." I yawned. "Oh dear. Early night for me, I think. Big day tomorrow."

"Me too." Phoebe devoured the dumpling and hunted out another. "Now, I keep meaning to ask, when do you go back?"

"My flight's booked for Saturday morning. So I was going to do most of my packing on Friday."

"Uh-huh. You know, you're welcome to stay a little longer if you like."

"You sure? I don't want to wear out my welcome." But I figured she meant it. Her toe was nudging my ankle under the table.

"Nah, it's —" And suddenly our conversation was shattered by a bouzouki orchestra. I was tired and startled enough that I looked around for the band before realising it was Phoebe's phone. She held up one finger to me, smiling as she picked up. "Yeia sou, Yaya! How are you?" A pause, then: "Yes, it's okay... no, because I'm with an Aussie friend. You know how I feel about that."

Phoebe covered the mouthpiece for a moment and whispered to me. "She gets cross if I don't talk Greek to her. But she'll live."

A tinny voice from the other end of the phone, then Phoebe again: "Yes, I've been climbing, but we rehearsed for three hours today. Yes, it's tomorrow night. Saint Cecilia? Oh, thank you!"

"...yes, I will. But maybe not until late, is eleven okay? Good."

"...well, yesterday I saw a movie with my friend Yvonne. It was — no, you haven't. She works for Papa, she's visiting here."

"...no, it really isn't dangerous... no, I liked him too, but these things don't always work out. I know, I was sad about it too."

A long pause this time. Whatever was going on at Yaya's end sounded quite involved.

"...uh-huh. Well, if they keep barking, you should talk to council about it. No, I don't believe that, if anybody's going to be afraid they should be afraid of you."

"...mmm. I should go now, I'm in a restaurant, but I'll call tomorrow night after the show."

"...you too. E agapo, Yaya."

She put the phone away, looking apologetically at the other diners, who mostly didn't seem to care. Then she chuckled. "Yaya gets very excited when I have a performance. She tells me Saint Cecilia will be watching to make sure it all goes well. And I am to call her afterwards and let her know."

"Aww. That's sweet."

"I used to get really cross at her for showing up at my school music recitals dressed up like a Greek peasant grandma. I got teased for it. Now I think... sometimes you don't realise how lucky you are, you know?"

"Mmm." I finished my last dumpling, brushed my fingertips against hers. My luck hadn't been so bad lately.

After dinner we caught the train back to Phoebe's place, and I rebooked my flight for Sunday night. I'd have preferred to make it Monday morning, but that would've meant going straight to work after a very early start, and I just can't get away with that like I did in my twenties. I wanted to be rested (at least a little bit) when I got to grips with the week's backlog.

By the time the confirmation email arrived my eyelids were getting heavy and I realised the evening's exertions had caught up with me. I said good-night to Phoebe and crawled into bed. She was going to stay up "just a little longer" to check her own email, and that's the last thing I remember before my alarm woke me on Thursday morning.

I woke up sprawled across the bed, sore and stiff all over. Aches in my shoulders and elbows, aches in my gut, aches in my knees and thighs, aches in muscles I'd never even noticed before. I spent several minutes reviewing my aching muscles before noticing just how sprawled I was: Phoebe was curled up on the sofa, leaving me with the whole bed to myself. What was that about?

But she was already beginning to stir, roused by my alarm. She yawned prettily and rubbed her eyes as she sat up. "Morning. How are you feeling?"

"Very sore."

"I'm not surprised, you worked hard. There's Nurofen in the bathroom cupboard, and a hot shower might help you."

After I'd had my shower she rubbed my shoulders. "Poor dear. Will you be okay for your course today? Or should you be staying in bed?"

"It's not as appealing without you in it."

"Ha." She paused the massage and started to give a more serious answer, but although she was talking with her hands it took a while before her words caught up. "Um, I, not sure whether we're two people who sometimes sleep together, or two people who sleep together. If that makes sense."

"Uh-huh. I'm trying to work out that one too."

She resumed the massage. "Anyway, I have to get up soon and go get my act together. Got to iron my dress for tonight, and I've got a student coming at eleven."

"Probably for the best, alas. I really shouldn't miss today." As much as I would've liked to spend the day in Phoebe's company, I couldn't really have justified calling in sick; it was my own fault, and besides, I'd gone to a lot of trouble to get into this course.

So after a quick breakfast I waved her goodbye and hobbled off to class. My obvious discomfort got some odd looks from the lads, especially the ones who knew I'd been on a date last night, but I played oblivious and let their imaginations run wild while I focussed on the minutiae of Content Management Systems.

At lunchtime I went down to the mall and spent sixty dollars to get worked over by a small masseuse with fingers like drill-bits. It hurt like hell, but at the same time it felt good, and even better when it stopped. By five o'clock I was moving much less gingerly than I had been that morning, and I made it to the train station easily enough.

The gig wasn't due to start until eight, but I didn't have anywhere else I needed to be; besides, I needed to study for the test at the last day of the course. So I headed for the Black Sow early and found myself a quiet corner booth where I could read through a fat folder of notes.

You know how some people make a fake "antique" by building a shiny new piece of furniture and then belting the crap out of it to get that weathered look? That's the vibe I got from the Black Sow, a new place trying a little too hard to look old. Heavy wooden beams alternating with exposed brick, concert posters for bands that broke up years before this place would've been built, '70s-pattern floor tiles that hadn't been around long enough to get scuffed.

But I'm not an authenticity snob. All I really cared about was that they served a decent lemon-lime-and-bitters and the seats were comfortable. I nursed and worked through my notes, tuning out the buzz of after-work conversation around me. Once I'd finished my homework I allowed myself to connect to the cafe's wi-fi, and that was me settled until the back room opened at seven-thirty.

I filed in as soon as they unlocked it, nursing the tiny glow that came from being able to tell the doorman "I'm on the list". It was a good-sized room with a few seats up the front and standing room around the back and the sides. My muscles didn't feel like they'd cope with sitting still too long (besides, I've always been shy about being up the front) so I found myself a niche against the wall, not too far from the stage, and waited as people trickled in.

At five past the curtains opened and a beardy guy with a Black Sow t-shirt walked onto stage with a microphone. "Good evening to you all! Thank you all for coming to the Black Sow, and we've got a great evening in store for you! Later on we have Jane Lamont from the USA, but first I'd like to welcome... NERO!"

(As Phoebe had said to me a couple of weeks back: "We have a fiddler and we couldn't think of anything better to call ourselves.")

They walked onto stage together. A big fellow who looked more like a medieval blacksmith than a musician — I recognised him from Phoebe's descriptions as Derek, who sang and played flute and glockenspiel (not at the same time) when he wasn't trying to find them paying work. Sophie, an intense-looking lady with a fiddle. Marty, an impressively mustachioed gentleman (although not quite up to Aleks' standard) with a couple of drums and an assortment of rattles and sticks hanging off his belt.

And Phoebe, carrying her cello. In the same scarlet dress she'd worn the night of our movie date, hair immaculately coiled and pinned, with a wispy scarf around her neck. She smiled at the audience. I saw her look around for me quickly, but there was a pair of lip-locked students in the way, and her gaze went right over me without spotting me back in the shadows. Then she took her seat, and without further ado they began.

I'd like to tell you they were the next Beatles, or the flute-fiddle-percussion-cello equivalent; that would be nonsense. They knew their instruments, they worked well together, they played with enthusiasm... but it didn't have that sort of spark, not that I could hear. They were the sort of band who can give you your money's worth for an evening, not the sort anybody will be playing in ten years' time.

You know, if you're not hanging out for the next Mozart or Freddie Mercury, you can have a hell of a lot of fun listening to a band like that. Who gives a toss about ten years from now? The point is to enjoy it here and now, and I did: stood back, half-closed my eyes, let the music fill my ears, and entertained pleasant thoughts.

They played a mix of stuff. Phoebe's background was mostly classical but she'd told me the others had brought their own influences, jazz and folk and a bit of rock. (One of the reasons I didn't see them storming the charts: they hadn't really settled on a sound, and probably never would.) About half of it seemed to be their own composition, some ideas working better than others; the other half was covers, most of them at least vaguely familiar to my ears.

I saw Phoebe looking out at the crowd anxiously between numbers, and at the end of the third — a jolly traditional Scots piece about ravens eating somebody or other's true love — she finally spotted me, and perked up as I waved, just before they launched into a sombre number about a retired hangman. After that we made eye contact during the breaks.

The audience had been moderately lively, clapping but not exactly fanatical about it. That changed when Sophie and Derek launched into a long and difficult-sounding musical duel, the sort that gets faster and more intricate until one player can't keep up. After the first couple of exchanges everybody else was hooked, cheering them on.

But Phoebe, sitting back in her chair with her bow set aside, glanced in my direction. Certain that nobody was looking at me, I blew her a kiss, and she smiled a quick subtle little smile. All the while, her fingers were busy; it looked as if she was retuning the cello, although if she was playing any notes they were too soft to hear over Derek and Sophie.

Eventually the duel fell apart, both players losing it more or less simultaneously, and after a healthy round of applause Derek returned to the mike. "And thank you all for listening to Nero tonight, I hope you have a wonderful evening with Jane. To take us out, we're going to play a little something from Germany..."

While he talked Phoebe was finessing her tuning. I was waiting for her to pick up the bow, but I'd forgotten that there's more than one way to play a stringed instrument; instead, she leant forward with her left hand up at the neck of the cello and her right down near the bridge. When her bandmates were ready and the audience had hushed she began: low and slow, measured notes plucked from the strings, coming like slow footsteps.

Some songs you forget; some you recognise; some are engraved in memory. By the third note I knew it, Einstürzende Neubauten's "Sabrina", before Marty came in tapping two sticks together, clicking softly just behind her beat. By the time Sophie began a high shimmering vibrato and Derek started to sing, my eyes closed and I was transported.

Back to my last year of university, staying up to watch music videos long after I should have been in bed, listening to that melancholy bass circling and returning obsessively to the same place.

When I'd just discovered for the first time that even bookish invisible Yvonne might be attractive to somebody after all. When my ex-tutor Beth, gothed-up to the nines, had taught me that 'melancholy' could be sexy as fuck.

And when I'd started to believe that some day, with somebody, it wouldn't just be about the sex.

I didn't open my eyes until the audience started to applaud, and when I did Phoebe was looking straight at me. But before I could blink she rose to take her bows with the rest of the band, and then they were gone from the stage.

There was a fifteen-minute break before Ms. Lamont was due on stage. I figured Phoebe would be a few minutes at least, so I hit the ladies'. It was crowded, and so I was delayed; when I got back, the place was packed, and I had to elbow through the crush before I spotted her near the place she'd seen me last.

I slipped up behind her and touched her on the waist. "Hello gorgeous."

"Hello!" She half-turned and kissed me on the cheek. "Thought you'd escaped."

"Just visiting the facilities. Are the others around?"

"Derek is. Over there." She nodded across the room. "He's giving us a lift home after. I think Sophie's out for a smoke and Marty will be finding excuses to hang around her. I'll introduce you to them later, if you like."

"Sure, that'd be great."

There was a lull in conversation, and then she cleared her throat. "So?"


"Now you've heard Nero. What did you think?"

"Before I answer, do I get to ask which ones were yours?"

My hand still at her waist, I felt rather than heard her chuckle. "Oh, I don't think so. Don't worry, I'm not going to bite your head off if you didn't like it."

I always say tact is overrated. "Let's see. I think some bits worked better than others. The hangman song... I really wanted to like it, it really sounded like it came from the heart, but it wasn't coherent enough. Too rambly, ending felt sort of weak."

"Uh-huh. You would not be alone in expressing that opinion."

"Is that an original?"

"One of mine — oh, don't worry, it's quite true. Some day I need to tinker with it and see if I can fix it up."

We discussed the other numbers one by one. I offered my inexpert opinions and Phoebe told me the inside story: songs that were in the lineup because one band member or another had begged for them, songs that had to be rewritten after Derek's car was stolen with several instruments inside it ("not my cello, thank god"), songs that would've sounded a lot better if certain people had had the sound balance right. But mostly, songs they'd enjoyed performing. And so we came to their last song.

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