A Stringed Instrument Ch. 06byBramblethorn©
Friday reminded me why it is that I hate Sydney summers. Sydney doesn't get any hotter than Melbourne, but it's a horribly muggy kind of heat. I was already getting sweaty by the time I got to the train station, and the forecast looked ugly: thirty-eight degrees, ninety-eight percent humidity. I was glad to get into the cooler air of the conference centre.
The coordinators started with a short recap of the week's material and then went straight to our final exam. No drama there; although I was short on sleep, I'd done more than enough study to get me through. We wrapped up around noon, with assurances that our certificates would be in the mail, and went out to celebrate at a nearby Turkish restaurant. It was only two blocks' walk, but I could feel myself getting sticky again on the way.
I'd switched off my phone for the exam, and I didn't remember to switch it back on until I was halfway through my salad. Not long after a message came through from Phoebe.
Mmm. Still blissed out from last night.
There was a missed call notification as well, stamped a couple of hours ago. I made sure my screen was out of view of my classmates — I needn't have worried, half of them were checking their own messages — and tapped in a reply.
Sorry, had phone off for exam. Turned on now. The phone also.
You're incorrigible. What time do you finish?
Depends how good you are... oh, class? Just out now, having lunch. Call you soon?
I finished lunch and said my good-byes to my classmates, then found myself a quiet corner to make the call.
"Hi! How was the exam?"
"Not bad. Pretty sure I passed. What's doing?"
"Coming into town to pick up some sheet music, thinking we could meet up and grab stuff for tonight?"
I followed her directions to J. Lochowitz Fine Music and waited inside, out of the heat. Although my knowledge of music is on a par with my knowledge of cheese (know what I like, no idea how it's made, fond of blues) it was obvious even to my naïve eyes that this place was Serious Business. The shop was bigger on the inside than it had looked from the street, and it was full. Rack upon rack of instruments, from violins to flutes, drums to trumpets, small rattles to a concert grand. Most of the selection was classical, but here and there were a few concessions to the twentieth century: a display of electric guitars and basses, some synthesisers, and in a glass case something that might even have been a theremin.
What they didn't have was anything cheap. This wasn't the sort of place you'd visit to buy one of those crappy plastic recorders for little Johnny's music class; aside from some of the smaller percussion instruments I couldn't see anything under two hundred dollars, and many of the tags I checked (all handwritten) were well into four figures.
I'd arrived well before Phoebe, and on my own I felt like like an interloper. After a brief look around I positioned myself in an alcove and picked up a brochure for protective camouflage. I'd been there about five minutes and had just started reading about the basics of pipe organ restoration when I felt a presence behind me.
"Can I help you, madam?" He must have been at least eighty, a wizened little man in a natty brown suit, with a trace of something European in his accent and mild disapproval in his countenance.
"No thank you, I'm just waiting for my... friend." Was that the right word? I really wasn't sure. "She's coming for some music."
"Oh. Very well, then. If you require any help, I will be here!" And he gave me a small but formal bow and trundled back to the register, the gait reminding me somehow of a Christmas beetle.
A few minutes later I heard the door jingle, and then the old man's voice. "Hello Miss Phoebe!"
"Hello Janos! How are you?"
"Very well, thank you. Is this young lady waiting for you?"
"Yes, this is my friend Yvonne from Melbourne. Yvonne, this is Mr. Janos." This time he smiled at me and bowed a little deeper (only a little); apparently Phoebe's introduction had marked me as somebody unlikely to leave sticky fingerprints on the merchandise. "Janos, did my music come in?"
"Upstairs, Miss Phoebe. Rachel will see to you." And he turned to deal with a scruffy young man who'd just wandered in and was breathing too heavily on the violins.
As we climbed the stairs, Phoebe filled in the blanks. "Used to work here while I was doing my degree. Still fill in once in a while when somebody's sick or on holiday, and Janos sends teaching business my way if anybody asks. He's had this place almost forty years, built the business up from nothing."
"He seems a bit... intense?"
"Oh yes. And very highbrow views on music. Disapproves of almost anything past the 1920s."
"But they sell electric guitars here, don't they? And synths?"
"Oh, he doesn't disapprove quite enough to let his principles get in the way of business. He knows enough about rock music to sell a good electric guitar, he just doesn't like it. You should have seen his face when some guy came in to try one of the guitars and started on Mötley Crüe. I thought Janos was going to throw holy water on him."
By that time we'd passed a locked store-room and reached the smaller room on the third floor: sheet music, books, and accessories. Phoebe introduced me to Rachel, a young lady who nodded politely at me before rummaging through a drawer behind the counter. "The Glass concerto?"
"That's the one." Phoebe paid, tucked the score into her bag, and we started back downstairs. "Something to experiment with in my free time. And an excuse to visit my secret crush."
"I'll introduce you!" Before I could make sense of that, she'd taken my hand and pulled me over to a display in the back corner. "Isn't she beautiful?"
At first I wasn't sure what I was looking at. It made me think of a wizard's staff, or a sci-fi weapon: gleaming whiteness, a long central shaft complemented by curved side pieces. It had buttons and what looked like power and data ports, and after a while I noticed the strings...
"Is that an electric cello? I didn't know they made those."
"Oh yes. They make electric everythings these days."
"Does your cello know you're looking at other cellos? Won't she be jealous?" I slipped one arm around Phoebe's waist — nothing improper, just two good friends together — but she politely nudged it away with a softly-spoken "Not here." Then, as if nothing had happened: "Nah. Beneath that conservative wooden exterior, she has some very modern notions. You should hear some of the things she and I get up to when nobody else is around."
"Scandalous!" I attempted my best outraged look.
"And she understands I have... needs. Needs that can't always be met the old-fashioned way."
"Do tell." Oh, how I wanted to touch her at that moment. Just a fingertip on her throat would send shivers through her...
"Perhaps I should show you." She turned toward the register, where Janos stood leafing through a catalogue of some description. "Janos? Do you think I could...?"
He put down the brochure. "Of course, my dear. You are always welcome to play anything here. You know how an instrument should be treated. Though why you'd keep playing that when you have such a beautiful one of your own..."
"I want to show Yvonne what it's like. She's never seen an electric cello before."
"Well." There was an implied kids these days. "Use these, if you would? I have to make a phone call." He brought over two sets of headphones and an adaptor, and Phoebe set up in the corner while I pulled up a seat. When he had returned to the register she leant forward under the pretext of plugging things in, and whispered to me.
"He thinks she's not worthy of me. But there's more to her than he sees."
She plugged in one set of headphones, put them on, tinkered with the buttons and then tested and tuned each of the strings in turn. It was odd to watch. I'd become familiar with those motions, albeit on a different instrument, and every time she drew the bow over the string I expected to hear the notes, vibrant and loud. But without the resonance of the wooden chamber there was almost nothing.
"I have to be careful when I play with milady. She has a tendency to wake the neighbours. This one, on the other hand..."
When the strings were tuned to her satisfaction she nodded, and passed me the other set of 'phones to wear. "I can play her, and nobody else in the world knows what I'm up to. Except you."
She began, playing the Bach Prelude that I'd heard the other day. Last time she'd been upset and distracted; this time she was composed, and I could hear it in how she played. To me, no great audio buff, it sounded just like a real cello as she danced through Bach's arpeggios.
Perhaps a minute in, I realised the music had changed. She was still playing arpeggios at the same tempo as before. But she'd drifted away from Bach, and one note at a time those arpeggios had mutated into something that I couldn't place but which sounded maddeningly familiar. She had a wicked look on her face, and occasionally she'd look over in Janos' direction to make sure he wasn't close enough to catch her out.
Then, without breaking time, she touched a button and the sound changed from cello to something like an electric guitar. I could have kicked myself for not recognising it: 'Sweet Child O' Mine', guaranteed to be playing every hour of every day on somebody's overpriced car stereo.
I mouthed: "Bad Phoebe!" She stuck out her tongue. Then her gaze shifted, over my shoulder, and by the time I heard Janos coming up behind me she'd already shifted back to the Prelude.
Afterwards, on the train back to her place, we talked about cellos.
"So, what would you do with an electric? Are you planning to work with different sounds?"
"A bit of that. And to be honest, it'd be nice to have something cheaper and sturdier than my regular cello, so I can haul it around and busk sometimes and not have a heart attack every time somebody bumps it. "
"Cheaper? How much does a cello usually cost?"
"Basic electric, decent quality, about two or three thousand. The one I showed you is a bit more because it's a very good model, excellent sound and a lot of extra functionality. You could simulate just about any sound you like on that, or load in a recording and play cello karaoke with it. Classical cello... a reasonable beginner's model will cost you about fifteen hundred plus accessories, and at least twice that for a pro."
She wasn't quite making eye contact, like there was something she didn't want to mention. And besides, I'd seen the price tag in Lochowitz Fine Music: not much change from six thousand dollars. If that's still the cheaper option...
"If you don't mind me asking... how much did yours cost you?"
A sigh and a resigned look. "Okaaay. Let me tell you about her. When I was in school, I had a crappy rental. I told Dad I wanted to be a professional cellist, and I needed something better. He said the rental was good enough to see me through exams, and after that we'd see about getting me a cello of my own. So I practiced hard, came top of the school in music by a long way, and when I got accepted into my Bachelor of Music he told me he had something special for me. Took me into the lounge room, made me close my eyes, and when I opened them again... there she was. Utterly beautiful. Imported from Italy, he must have been planning it for months. He wouldn't tell me how much he paid, won't even let me see the insurance, but from what I know of cellos... probably about fifteen thousand dollars."
She said fifteen thousand dollars without any kind of emphasis. As if she'd practiced saying it to herself, trying to make it sound normal. I winced inwardly when I thought about how I'd knocked over that instrument the night before.
"I don't think so. No, he just wanted to do something really nice for me. So he went and talked to my teacher about cellos and got me a very good cello. And he got his money's worth. She looks beautiful, she sounds superb. But..." She was twisting the strap of her bag between her hands. "I walked into my first class at the Conservatorium, and I had a better instrument than the teacher. I heard one of my classmates talking about 'that spoiled little dilettante' when she didn't think I was near. After that I kept imagining what else they must be saying behind my back. When I was playing well, it's only because my dad bought me an expensive instrument. Playing badly — 'she doesn't deserve that cello, it should be with someone worthy'.
"It's stupid, but I made myself really miserable over that for two years. Practised incessantly, but I still felt like a five-thousand-dollar cellist with a fifteen-thousand-dollar cello. Slept around with guys I didn't even like, drank too much. Tried coke a couple of times. Probably would've ended up one of those rich girls in and out of rehab, but Jill and Maria caught me out early on and gave me a talking to. I decided the best thing was to change my situation. Took a six-month break, then transferred and finished my degree at Sydney.
"So, yeah. I love my cello, I'll always love playing her, and it means a lot that Dad gave her to me. I don't ever want to replace her. But sometimes I want to be able to sit down and play something that doesn't have that baggage. Something I've earned and paid for with my own money. Does that make sense?"
"It does." The carriage had almost emptied and nobody was near us. I leaned forward and kissed her on the lips; she looked surprised but not displeased.
"When we get back to your place, I would like to kiss you some more. A lot more."
She reached out and squeezed my hand. "I'd like that very much."
It was close to forty degrees when we got off the train, and although it wasn't a long walk my armpits had started to squelch by the time we got to Phoebe's place. I was eager to get inside into the cool air; after a shower and a change, the two of us could figure out some way to end the afternoon. But when we opened the door, it was hotter inside as out.
"Christ, don't tell me the air conditioning's packed in. Not the day for it."
"The microwave's off too. And..." I flicked the light switch by the door: nothing. "Your power's out, that's what's happened."
I located the fuse box at the back of the main house. The whole of the granny flat was on one circuit, and the breaker had tripped. But when I switched it on, it went straight back off again. Even when we unplugged everything in the flat and switched off all the lights, the breaker wasn't having a bar of it.
"Sorry, but I think the breaker's broken. You're going to need an electrician."
"Shit." We were both at that tired-hot-cranky stage where everything seems too hard and too complicated. "Time to call the landlords."
She tapped on her phone. After a few rings I heard somebody answer, and Phoebe replied. "Hi Alistair, it's Phoebe... are you home? Yeah, my power has gone out. My friend looked at it, she thinks it needs an electrician... yeah, please. Thanks." And she hung up.
A couple of minutes later, I heard the back door slam and Alistair Taylor appeared, a gruff-looking man in his sixties with a military bearing. Phoebe introduced me as a friend visiting from Melbourne for a few days. I explained what we'd done to check the power, but he insisted on repeating it all: flip the switches, try the breaker, unplug everything, try the breaker again.
"Hum. I'd better call the electrician." He looked at his watch. "Though I don't fancy he'll come out today. S'pose I'd better run an extension out for your fridge. Pity the aircon's wired into the circuit directly or we could do that too."
Phoebe nodded. "Do you think I could park my cello in your house? This heat isn't good for it."
"Yes, of course. Tell you what, you should come sit in our lounge room until it cools off."
That sounded better than broiling, so we followed him back to the main house where he and Phoebe introduced me to his wife Maggie. She looked a few years younger than Alistair, and her manner was friendly but shrewd.
"A pleasure to meet you, Yvonne. So you're Phoebe's mystery guest."
"I suppose I am."
"We thought perhaps she had a gentleman friend visiting."
"Oh no," Phoebe replied. "Yvonne is certainly not a gentleman." Then, before anybody could make too much of that, she added: "She's up from Melbourne for the week for a training course."
"I thought you must have somebody staying." Maggie turned to me. "Usually she practices five hours a day. If the weather's nice I leave the dining-room door open so I can hear her better."
The look on Phoebe's face told me this was news to her, and I suspected I wasn't the only person suddenly thinking of just how much noise we'd been making of late.
"...But this week, it's been so quiet in the evenings."
I couldn't tell whether Maggie was being truthful or diplomatic, but it seemed like time to say something. "Speaking of which, sorry about the clatter last night. I was helping Phoebe in with her cello and we took a tumble." No, Yvonne, rephrase!
"Oh, that's perfectly all right, dear. I just thought at first it might be burglars. You know, you're still looking flushed" — blushing, more like — "would you two like to use our shower?"
That seemed like an excellent idea. Phoebe fetched a change of clothes for us both and we showered (separately, alas) while Alistair set up the extension cord and chased up an electrician. By the time I got out of the water and pulled on a T-shirt and shorts I was feeling much more human.
Alistair harrumphed as he put down the phone. "Best he can manage is tomorrow afternoon."
"Well, dear." Maggie put down her crossword and looked at Phoebe over the top of her spectacles. "Why don't the two of you stay for dinner? Patrick and Kate will be here, and I've more than enough food for extras. I daresay nobody will be eating much in this weather."
So we stayed. Over dinner I got to know the Taylors better: Alistair was indeed a retired Army colonel, Maggie was an ex-headmistress who kept her hand in with relief teaching, their son Pat and daughter-in-law Kate were both in Customs. Pat worked the IT end of things, so we compared notes on our jobs.
Afterwards, as we helped clear the plates, Maggie asked: "Phoebe, Yvonne, would you like to join us for a round of Scrabble or two?"
I looked questioningly at Phoebe and she looked right back at me; I had other ideas, and I could see she did too. But it was hard to think of a polite excuse. Besides, our previous conversation with Maggie had made me uncomfortably aware of just how close Phoebe's flat was to their dining room.
"Sure, why not?"
Since we had too many players, Alistair volunteered to sit out and read his newspaper while the rest of us crowded around the board. I like to think I'm a reasonably good player, but the Taylors treated it like a blood sport, and it wasn't long before Phoebe and I were trailing badly. Halfway through the game, after Pat had scored eighty-five points in one play (how long has 'ST' been a word?) I surreptitiously slipped out my phone and texted Phoebe, who was sitting across the table from me.
If we were playing this one for clothes, we'd both be naked by now.
About a minute later, while Phoebe was considering her own turn, her phone buzzed. By that time I had both my hands in plain sight, fiddling with my rack (of tiles), and at first she looked annoyed at the interruption.