A Stringed Instrument Ch. 14byBramblethorn©
Phoebe was still there in my arms when morning came. Not that morning was much to speak of; it was grey and cold, rain drumming on the roof of her little flat, staying-in-bed weather.
I felt her wake, and as she snuggled back against my chest I murmured "So, what do you have on today, love?"
She yawned and stretched, then giggled as I reached around and scratched her exposed tummy. "Tickles! Um, I'm giving lessons ten-thirty to twelve. You'll want to be out for that, little Amy's a wee bit rough on the ears. Another student four-thirty to six. Nothing else booked, but I do need to put in a lot of practice this week."
"What are you playing?"
"A good question. The Offertorio from Verdi's Requiem, the opening from Strauss's Don Juan. No problem there, I know those. And the first movement from a concerto of my choice." She still had her back to me, but from the tone of her voice I thought she was scowling.
"So what are the options?"
"I know the Elgar very well. I've been playing that one since I was fourteen, and it's a pretty popular option. It's just..."
"Bad connotations. Too much of death in that one, just at the moment." She squeezed my arm against her ribs. "I'd rather not play it."
"Then don't. What else is there?"
"Oh, Bach, Schumann, Shostakovich... I could do them, but I feel like I want to play the Glass. The one I picked up when I took you to that music shop. I just want to do something a little different."
"So can you do that?"
"Yeah, but I'm not as practiced with it."
"You've got a week to sharpen up, right?"
I felt her chuckle. "Oh, darling, I think I just heard you volunteer to be my page-turner. You are going to be so utterly sick of Philip Glass by the time you go home."
"Mmm-hmm. Bet I won't be sick of you." I propped myself up on one elbow, and stroked her face. "Ten-thirty's not for a while yet."
"Is that so?"
I brushed a finger across her lips, trailed along the line of her jaw, traced the spirals of her ear. "Last night was lovely. I want more." I licked her earlobe, tasted the skin just below her ears. It was a trigger point: she shivered, and her lips parted. Then she reached back, scooped up her hair between thumb and fingers, exposing her neck.
I took the hint and kissed her there, slow and firm, my lips following the bumps of her spine. My hand was at her face again, playing over her mouth, drawing her lower lip down and dipping inside. She caught me between her teeth, explored my fingertip with her tongue, exhaled warm breath as I kissed just below the hairline.
Last night we'd both been working off pent-up desire. Now we were relaxed, and our love-making was more like a slow wordless conversation about nothing in particular. The day brightened and the rain eased as we caressed and explored one another, more concerned with touching than with where we touched. When you're with the right person, sensation can be found anywhere. A whisk of Phoebe's hair brushed across my forehead; my lips dawdling at the back of her knee; her toes wriggling against my ankle. And often, just stillness and warmth and quiet contact.
Even when the sensual drifted into sexual, there was no hurry about it. She spent an age with her cheek pressed to my chest, and another at my belly, and another at my thighs. Her tongue and I became reacquainted, her fingers slipped and curled inside me. I floated on a warm tide, and I was almost sorry when at last I felt the current carrying me to my destination. No shrieks, no fireworks, just a feeling of gentle release pulsing like a slow heartbeat.
She moved up alongside me to cuddle, and I ruffled her hair. As I did, my body made an unexpected crackling noise.
"What was that?"
"My back." I wriggled my shoulders experimentally; it felt good. "It's been out for weeks, too much computer work. And tension. Guess I just relaxed enough to loosen it up."
"Mine's been acting up too, I'll have to get a back rub off you some time."
"Deal." I pulled her against me, and I might have drifted off to sleep again, if her phone hadn't started ringing. Gilbert and Sullivan: her dad.
She'd left it on the kitchen bench and had to get up to grab it; I stayed in bed as she threw on a dressing gown and answered it.
"Hi Dad? Yeah, not bad, and you? No, that's okay, I was awake."
I sat quietly while she listened and then replied.
"Yeah, we did most of it yesterday. Gia and Chloe —" her mother's sisters "— and Scott. I picked out a box of books and stuff, and there were a couple of pictures that I didn't want to squash into my case. Gia's holding on to them for me, she's coming up to Sydney in a couple of months so she'll bring them then.
"Yeah, birth certificate and stuff like that. Are you going to need — oh, okay then, I'll hang on to them. And a few clothes, and Mum's jewellery — no, not much, but you remember the malachite earrings? Yeah, and the necklace. There were a couple of other pieces Scott gave her, and we all agreed he should have them. Some pictures and things. And, ah, I have her wedding ring. Yes, with the rest of the jewellery. Do you — oh, no problem, I thought you would but I just wasn't sure, you know. No problem, I'll get it back to you.
"No, I'm okay. It was sad, but... kind of good to do it, you know? Lot of little things I'd forgotten, it was good to see them again. And talk to Gia and Chloe. I should keep in touch with the cousins more, they're all on Facebook now.
"Oh, I was going to tell you! They called yesterday, they want me back for a second round on Monday... no, different pieces this time. Two they've set, and one of my choice. I'm going to do the Glass. Yes, the one you didn't like...
"No, just a few students... um, and. Yvonne's visiting. She's staying for a few days, but she knows I'll mostly be practising for this."
I looked at her sharply, and she looked back at me and nodded, mouthed I love you. "Yes, we did. But we talked it over yesterday, and we sorted out a lot of things, so... yeah, here we are. Yeah, Dad, I know. I've thought about it a lot and this is what I'm doing. I'll talk to you about it more later... probably send you an email? Don't —"
She paused again, pacing closer to me, as he spoke.
"No, Dad. Not an issue. They don't ask about stuff like that. It's none of their business anyway." She gave my shoulder a squeeze.
"No, I need to talk to her about it, but not until after my audition. I'll talk to her then, and I would really like you to back me up on that if you think you can... no, I don't mean that. Just, if she brings it up with you, make sure she understands this is something I've thought about long and hard. Yeah, I know. I'll talk more later, I promise, but I've got a student this morning and I need to get ready. Love you, Dad. Look after yourself, and I'll be in touch. Okay, bye now."
She put down the phone and stood there, taking a couple of deep breaths. "Well, that's done. Half-done, anyway."
I walked over and gave her a hug. "How'd he take it?"
"Well... not delighted. Lot of 'are you sure you know what you're doing?' and so on."
"And do you?"
"Not really. Never stopped me before." She returned the hug. "But I don't think you're going to get fired again. He hates having to go back on a decision even once."
"Glad to hear it. Um, does this mean we're out generally?"
"Can I think about that a while? See how things go with Dad and Yaya, and then look at the rest of it?"
"Sure." I squeezed her, then let her go. "By the way, your student's due in, ah, nineteen minutes."
We showered and dressed in a hurry; since I hadn't brought a change of clothes, all mine were recycled from the day before, except the shirt that Phoebe had laundered for me. We wolfed down some cereal and I was just heading out the door as Phoebe's student Amy arrived.
I spent the morning in Newtown, hitting the second-hand shops for a few days' worth of spares. I passed on several acres of corduroy and a pink faux-fur jacket that looked suspiciously like a skinned Muppet, but managed to get several decent shirts and a couple of pairs of jeans in my size. (By the way, this story was posted on lit erotica dot com and if you're reading it elsewhere, it's been ripped off without permission.)
Amy was gone when I returned, and Phoebe was in the middle of something classical-sounding (the Strauss, as it turned out). I waited quietly until she finished, and then she rose and kissed me on the cheek. "Hello, stranger. Is that lunch I smell?"
"Got us some pies."
"Just the thing. I'm ravenous."
After lunch I cleaned up. I looked back from the sink to see her sitting at her stool, holding her cello but not doing anything.
"Yeah, just gearing myself up for the Glass. It's a bit of a shift from the others."
"Do you need a page-turner?" Although I had no idea whether I'd be able to follow the music; I hadn't read a score since school days.
"I'm trying to get by without. But if I get stuck..." She handed me the sheet music. "Hang on to it, I'll tell you if I need it."
So I pulled up a chair behind her, and she began.
It took me a while to come to terms with the music. I'd been exposed to the classical standards at one time or another — it's hard to avoid them altogether, even if you're not dating a musician — but Glass was not at all what I was used to. It was like trying to make sense of an unfamiliar programming language; at first it seemed jarring and discordant, and only gradually did I start to recognise its internal logic as its motifs emerged, disappeared, reappeared in new guises. Even then I couldn't decide whether it was brooding or hopeful, and I couldn't tell whether I liked it.
"Music, please." Phoebe had stopped.
"Oh, I'm sorry, I lost my place."
"Page eighteen, I think."
I found the page and showed it to her.
"Oh, bloody hell. Always trip up on that bit. Let's try that again."
She restarted from somewhere in the middle. I watched her play; it looked like hard work, with a lot of intense bowing and some fast finger-work for her left hand. She went over the same passage three more times; I couldn't hear the problem, but she seemed more and more dissatisfied.
"For crissakes. I need a break. Can I get you to rub my back, love?"
She lay face-down on the bed and I did my thing, noting how tight her shoulders were. "You'll get there," I told her.
"Hope so, or I'm screwed next Monday."
I kept going until my hands got tired, and then I lay beside her and put my arm over her. She rolled over and cuddled me back, the cello abandoned for now, and we snuggled together in comfortable silence.
I'd only meant it to be for a few minutes, but I was warm enough and cozy enough that I drifted into half-sleep and stayed there until Phoebe's alarm reminded her that it was four-fifteen and her next student was due in a few minutes.
"Gah. Meant to get so much more done. You're too distracting, love." But she kissed me as she said it.
I cleared out for what remained of the afternoon. At first I explored a small park that I'd noticed on the way to the station; on a better day it would've been a fine place to sit and feed the ducks or read a book, but it was clouding over and threatening rain again. So instead I walked on to the neighbourhood shops. I sheltered under the awnings and browsed in windows, killing time, waiting for six o'clock... until all of a sudden I caught a whiff of something that put a smile on my face.
"I got us chips." I put a steaming-hot paper-wrapped bundle on a mat on Phoebe's table. "Can't have winter without hot chips. Fish too."
"Chips? I love you too." She put down a book of cello exercises and helped herself to a seat. As I unwrapped the package she said, "Dad used to buy us chips after my cello lessons, when I was about twelve. He'd get a cup of chips for me and one for himself, and then he'd try to distract me into turning around so he could steal a chip when I wasn't looking. He said they tasted better that way. Sometimes I managed to steal his, but he's pretty hard to trick."
"That's adorable. John and I used to pool our money and buy three bucks' worth after school."
She selected a chip, golden-brown and crisp, and tested it. "Mmm. Good. I think I'll keep you."
"Delighted to hear it." I settled into my chair opposite her, and we played footsie as we got stuck into the fish and chips.
When we'd nearly finished it off Phoebe paused, gesturing at me with a large chip held like a baton. "Sweetie, how do you feel about me auditioning for this job? If I do get this position, it means I'm in Sydney for the foreseeable."
"I know. I... I'd like you to be closer, but this is your thing, you have to follow it. If that means us making a lot of long-distance calls and me coming up to Sydney when I can... well, you're worth it."
"Aww." Her eyes were bright, and she took my hand and pulled it toward her. "You're sweet. And I promise I'll visit as often as I can. You never know, there might even be an opening for a cellist in Melbourne some —" Then her expression changed as she looked past me to the door, and she let go my hand in a hurry. "I cancelled my seven o'clock, I know I did!"
I turned and looked toward the door, but there was nobody there. When I turned back, Phoebe had a satisfied grin on her face, and a couple of the chips nearest me were missing.
"I'll get you for that."
I walked around behind her, took her by the wrist, and brought her hand to my mouth. Her fingers were salty and I licked them clean, thumb tickling the inside of her wrist as I did so. With my other hand I stroked her lips and it wasn't long before she responded, catching my fingers between her teeth and laving them with her tongue, as dextrous and graceful as the fingerwork I'd watched a few hours earlier.
I drew her to her feet, one arm around her waist, lips at her neck. But then she brought her hand between us, pushing me away.
I stopped. What did I do wrong?
"I would love to climb into bed with you right now, but if I do that I'm going to be there till morning. And I haven't done nearly enough work today. Sorry."
I hugged her and kissed her chastely on the forehead. "I shall be good, then." And I cleaned up the remains of the chips as she washed her hands and returned to Philip Glass...
And still she was struggling. Sometimes she stalled on the same passage that had caused her trouble before; sometimes she made it past there, but stopped abruptly later on. I couldn't hear the mistakes — if mistakes there were — but I could tell by the set of her shoulders and the hiss of her breath that something was still wrong.
"Phoebe? Is there anything I can do?"
"I hate to say this, but...I don't think I can concentrate with you around. I'm sorry, I just —"
"It's okay. I was kinda getting that vibe. Hmm... look, it's getting late, not a lot of options tonight. But what if I make myself scarce tomorrow? I can go visit my aunt, see museums or whatever, leave you to practice in peace, come back in the evening. Would that work?"
"I think so. Are you okay with that?"
I had to think carefully about my reply. It wasn't an easy thing to do; having almost lost Phoebe once, my instincts were screaming at me to cling to her, to spend every second I could with her. But...
"Yeah, I think I'll be okay. Just promise that when you're done for the day, and you feel you've done enough, you'll give me a call."
"I promise." She stood on tiptoes, kissed me on the nose. "Let's give that a try."
And it worked, well enough. After a quiet night cuddled up with Phoebe I spent Wednesday out with my aunt, who monologued on the Evils Of The World and the trouble I had saved myself by steering clear of men. (Having been divorced twice, she had strong opinions on the subject.) We visited a museum exhibition, and when she ran out of monologue I told her I was Seeing Somebody. She was pleased to hear it.
"Sometimes, Yvonne, I think my life would have been so much simpler if I'd been a Lesbian like you." I had my doubts, but I chose not to argue.
We parted at five, and since I still hadn't heard from Phoebe I checked myself into a movie that I'd been meaning to see. The opening credits had just started when my phone buzzed silently.
Have been good today, lots of work done. When can you be home?
I'm in town, can be back in thirty min-
I paused, considered things, then deleted the message and started again. I wasn't a teenager; I didn't need to drop everything and come rushing, and nor did Phoebe need that of me.
I'm at the movies, just starting. Home around 8?
Excellent. See you then.
She met me at the door, with a boisterous hug that suggested her mood was greatly improved. "How was the movie?"
"Not bad. And you? How did you go with your friend Philip today?"
"Much better." She hugged me again. "The thing is, when you're around, I start thinking about what it sounds like to you, and what you're going to think of it. Then I find myself trying to play for you — do I need to emphasise this theme so Yvonne notices it? And it gets in between me and just playing the music, I get self-conscious and start tripping myself up. I need to think about the music first and get it right for me, and then you can listen. But not yet. It's silly, I don't mind if the neighbours hear it, but you're different."
"I'll take that as a compliment... I guess?"
"You should. Not many people get under my skin like that. So, sweetie, what would you like to do tonight? I'm cooking."
After she'd beaten me three games out of five, we retired to bed. We ended up head to foot, me playing idly with her toes as we talked.
"Phoebe, I've been thinking... I might head back to Melbourne tomorrow, leave you in peace to practice."
"You sure? You don't have to."
"I don't..." I counted five little piggies, wiggled each toe in turn. "But I know what this audition means to you. I'll be happier if I know you're absolutely free to concentrate on this without me getting in the way."
I kissed the tip of her big toe. "And whatever happens with the audition, I'll still be your girlfriend afterwards, and I'll come back soon."
"It's a date." She flicked off the light, then wrapped her arms around my ankles. "By the way, I'm pretty broke, probably won't make it down before, but I'll be in Melbourne mid-August for my birthday."
"Not partying in Sydney?"
"Might have a small get-together there. But it's the first one since Mum died, I want to do something with family."
"Ah, that makes sense." I squeezed her knees. "How are you going with that stuff?"
"Oh... okay? I guess. Still gets me sometimes. I dream that we're talking, just mundane stuff. One time she asked me if I was seeing anybody and I started to tell her about you. Then I woke up and remembered you said she'd already figured it out. And sometimes I catch myself thinking 'That'd be a good birthday present for Mum', stuff like that. But getting better, I think."
"I love you. Any time you want to talk about stuff, I'm here."
"I know. Love you too." A few minutes later I felt her relax into sleep, still cuddling my legs like a teddy bear, and not long after I dozed off too.
We said our goodbyes in the morning. I left one of my shirts down at the bottom of the bed, where she'd find it after I was gone. As I was about to go she said, "Can I ask you a little favour?"
"Sure, what is it?"
"I need you to deliver this." She gave me a small envelope, with a name on it. I didn't open it, but from the weight and the shape I had a pretty good idea what was inside.
I flew back to Melbourne that afternoon. The apartment was a mess: Aleks had been hit by inspiration and was furiously soldering bits of metal scrap into some sort of sculpture. Once I'd confirmed that he was using lead-free solder, I didn't bother remonstrating with him further. At least he'd put down a drop-cloth first.