A Stringed Instrument Ch. 09byBramblethorn©
"Skip"/"Skippy" is slang for Anglo-Australians, used mostly by Australians of Mediterranean background.
Greek Orthodox Christianity uses the Julian calendar for calculating Easter dates, which means it often falls later than the Western dates.
Even with the Redmond Barry deadline behind us, the next few weeks were hectic at work. The market had picked up again after the Christmas lull and my real estate agents were busy: breaking mice, running out the printer ink, spilling coffee into keyboards, all the little annoyances that kept me gainfully employed. I suppose they sold a few houses along the way. I ran around fixing it all and I did it with a smile on my face and a spring in my step, because I was smitten.
Every night after work Phoebe would call me, once she'd finished the evening's cello practice. We'd talk to one another as new-found lovers do, puppy-like, eager to keep chatting just for the sound of one another's voices: music, or memories of school plays, or favourite books, it didn't really matter as long as we had an excuse to stay on the phone. And there was plenty to talk about; the difference in our ages and upbringing was enough that we each had a different piece of the world to describe, and yet we were close enough to understand one another.
She'd barely made it back to Sydney before we started planning when we might see one another again. She wasn't going to be able to make it back to Melbourne for a while; the lessons she gave were barely paying the bills, and she'd already raided her electric-cello fund to pay for her February trip.
"Besides, love, I need to get stuck into practice for a while. I ought to be getting a good five or six hours a day between now and June, and I have to keep my mind on it. No good letting the mind wander while the body plays on autopilot. And as fond as I am of you, you can be very distracting."
"I'll take that as a compliment. Hmm... if you're very good for the next month and do your five hours a day, do you think you could take the Labour Day weekend off? I could fly up and take you somewhere nice? But only if you've been good."
"It's a date."
And so it was that the Saturday afternoon before Labour Day found us in the Hunter Valley, in the shop at one of the local wineries. It turned out that Phoebe knew a great deal about wines; me, with my eyes closed, I can reliably tell the difference between a red and a white.
Perhaps that's for the best. Somebody had to drive, after all, and it's not like I was really missing out. Where there's wine, there's inevitably good food. So while Phoebe did the tasting and picked out a Verdelho and a Shiraz, I foraged for cheeses, quince paste, olives, and other delicious goodies to make up a picnic for Sunday.
Although I could happily have spent all afternoon browsing their wares, we didn't want to dawdle. I'd picked a bad weekend to visit; there were storms forecast, and as we carried the shopping outside, rain was already starting to speckle the windscreen of our little rented hatchback.
As I started to reverse out of the car park, Phoebe remarked: "That's the problem with having a rich dad."
"Expensive tastes in wine. Most of the other stuff I can live without, but places like this really test my resolve about not taking his money."
"Heh. Of course, when you think about it, he's still paying for this weekend."
"How — oh, your wages? That's different, you've earned it, you can spend it how you like. I'm okay with it when it comes through you."
"Like the reindeer and the mushrooms."
"Oh, in Siberia or somewhere. There's a hallucinogenic mushroom, only it's deadly poisonous to humans. Reindeer eat the mushroom, and when it passes through their kidneys, it filters out the poison but it's still got the hallucinogens. So the local shamans..." I trailed off, unsure whether I really wanted to finish that explanation.
After a short silence, she replied: "'Vonne... you're weird, you know that? I think it's part of why I love you."
I shifted up to fourth and put my hand on her knee. "Love you too, babe. Now, where am I turning?"
She unfolded the map; we'd gone over it that morning and marked the places that looked interesting. "Right in about five k's, if you want to do the cider place."
"I do, just not sure about the time. We've still got a way to go, and I don't want to be too late at the B&B." I'd booked us a room in a bed-and-breakfast; on the website it'd looked rather pretty and not too expensive, and it was only after booking that I'd checked the address and realised it was a good forty kilometres out of our way.
"Oh? You have plans for the evening?"
My hand slid up her thigh. "I certainly do. Dinner first and then... oh, blast, can you get that?" My phone had started to ring.
She picked it up and answered it: "Hello, Yvonne's phone, Phoebe speaking... yes, yes, we are. Hang on a moment." To me: "It's Keith from... 'Chambers'?"
"Yeah, that's the B&B."
"Right, he wants to know what time to expect us."
"Let's see... four-thirty now... say half an hour to the cider place, half an hour there, then another forty k's... let's say around six, six-thirty? That gives us time to drop our things and then look for dinner?" Chamber's was out in farm country, but it was less than half an hour's drive from a town where we should be able to find something for dinner.
"Hi Keith, probably around six, six-thirty... sorry, what? Oh." Silence for a while, as Keith explained something to her. "Yes, um, purple please. Thank you! See you then, bye."
Then, to me: "He wanted to know which colour room we wanted."
"Well... I think he was trying to be tactful. He said they had two rooms to choose from, one painted yellow that faces south and has two single beds, or one painted purple that faces east and has a double."
"Ha. Yep, definitely purple."
"Hope they don't have a problem with that."
"They'd better bloody not, I've already paid the deposit."
By the time we got to the cider house it was beginning to get dark. The sun wasn't down yet but it was hidden behind grey clouds, and there was a nasty-looking mass of black scudding in our direction. I felt it would be safer to get back on the road as soon as possible, so I passed up the opportunity of a tasting. Instead I just picked up a couple of bottles that sounded interesting, and a bag of dried apples for the car, then got back behind the wheel.
Although we'd only spent a few minutes inside, the rain had already picked up by the time we got out, and I had to cut my speed. Not long afterwards the rain picked up, increasing to a solid patter that obliged me to slow down and switch the wipers on high. As soon as we got back to the highway, we ran into heavy holiday traffic that slowed us further; what would usually have been a 100 zone was crawling along at 30.
I asked, "So how's your grandma doing? You haven't mentioned her lately."
"Not great. I mean, she's okay, but the chemo's knocking her around. She's pretty tired and sick, and — well, you've met her, she's not the sort who likes having to rely on somebody else to wipe her bum. Sounds like poor Hamish is earning his money, she's been pretty rough on him. But Dad said the last lot of scans were looking good, the tumour's shrunk so they're looking to operate in April."
"How are you doing?"
"Oh yeah... holding up, love. Yaya's been a bit short with me lately, but I just keep reminding myself that she's having a crappy time and it's not going to be like this forever."
"Indeed." I squeezed her hand and she squeezed back. "And is Leon still on the scene?"
"Oh yes. Dad says he's there almost every time he visits. Helping her tidy the house or something. Well, whatever makes her happy — oh, that doesn't look good."
"Ah, drat." We'd just come over a hill, and up ahead of us was a long line of tail-lights going nowhere. As I slowed I switched on the radio in search of information, but after several minutes of band-hopping with no success I gave up and left it tuned to a local rock station in the hope that they might run a traffic report later.
The cars ahead of us weren't moving at all, so I shifted into neutral and put on the handbrake, and there we sat as the traffic built up behind us. The local station had a good selection of music, and soon enough I found myself tapping my fingers to a classic of '80s Aussie pub rock. It was only when Phoebe started stroking my wrists that I realised I was tapping my fingers on her knee.
"Well," I ventured, "there are worse people to be stuck in traffic with."
"I could say the same." She leant over and kissed me on the cheek, but I caught her by the shoulder and turned for a proper kiss. She smacked her lips: "Mmm. I've missed that."
"Me too, sweetie. I can see I'm going to be racking up the frequent flyer points." I was stroking her leg again, dragging her skirt up to expose her knee.
"I would love to help you earn those points." She leant over again, and her tongue did some very interesting things to my ear. "How long do you suppose we'll be stuck here?"
"You know, I've never done it in a car. Well, not all the way."
Sad to say, I wasn't about to break that streak. Even with the handbrake on, there's only so much I'm willing to do while in control of a motor vehicle. And even in the dark and the rain, there were limits to what either of us were willing to do with a dirty big SUV parked on our tail and halogens glaring in through the back window.
So we stayed in our seats, and our clothes stayed on, but there was a great deal of kissing and hands a-wandering. By the time the lights in front of us started to move, we were both quite hot and bothered, and I had to wipe the fog away to see where we were going.
"Phoebe, how hungry are you?"
"When we get in, I was thinking of postponing dinner and starting with the bit where I tear your clothes off."
"Mmm. Yeah, that sounds good to me. Dinner can wait. Oh, but I should call the B&B and tell them we're running late."
It took us about fifteen minutes to reach the cause of the delay: a three-car pile-up, partly cleared but still blocking half the road, with a couple of very soggy-looking police controlling traffic. No sign of an ambulance, and I hoped nobody was badly hurt, but some panel-beater was going to do well.
Once we'd passed the accident, the traffic cleared again. I tapped my fingers on the wheel as they played another '80s hit I hadn't heard in years; it wasn't until the final notes that I realised Phoebe had been quiet for a while, and when I turned to look she had a contemplative look on her face.
"You okay there, love?"
"Oh yeah, just thinking. You know, when I was in year ten, I did a research project on those guys."
"Really? So do you know what the lyrics are about? I never could make sense of it."
"Not that sort of project. No, mine was finding out what happened to them afterwards. Turned out to be quite depressing."
"Oh? Rock and roll suicides? ODs?"
"No, nothing that spectacular. No, they just kinda fizzled out. They had three weeks at number one, then they had a follow-up that barely made the top twenty, then nothing. Even if you're careful with the money it's not enough to live on, so... let's see. Singer became a manager for other groups, didn't do too well. There was some suggestion he was taking more than he ought from their earnings, it fell apart, nasty court case, he ended up on the dole. Bassist had some sort of mid-life crisis, went a bit bipolar, spent most of his share on some concept album that never got finished, I think he's running a crystal dolphin shop in Nimbin these days. Guitarist... god knows. The only one who'd done well for himself was the drummer."
"Did he have his own band? Can't remember the name, early '90s..."
"No, he dropped out of the business and went back to being an electrician. Quite a successful one. I read an interview and he said it was easier for him because he never wanted to be a rock star. Said he didn't even like music that much, just wanted to be famous for a few weeks. Go to parties, get free drugs, sleep with a few dozen women, and then... once he'd had his fun, back to making a living."
"Oh. I guess that works."
She was silent for a while, and the only sound in the night was the slosh of my tires and the DJ's chatter. Then: "Not for me. I don't want to be a star. I just want a nice quiet life, playing music for a living. I don't want to be famous for a day and then spend half my life looking back at it wishing I could have that time again."
"That's very... level-headed?"
"Don't get me wrong, darling, I have my melodramatic phases. God, when I was fourteen I heard about Jackie du Pré dying of MS and I wanted to be like that. Tragic heroine of her generation, records the definitive performance of everything, dies lamented by the musical world. Then a couple of years later I read 'The Alien Corn' — do you know it?"
"I don't." We'd turned off the highway now, onto a windy country road, and the night was a mess of flickering tree-shadows and the dazzle of my own headlights scattered by the rain.
"Somerset Maugham. Year ten English class. Young man, rich Jewish parents pretending to be English nobility, he wants to be a concert pianist. You can see why it struck a chord with me. Long story short, he decides if he can't be a master pianist then he'll kill himself. I thought that was very romantic, at the time. And somewhere in there I wanted to be David Helfgott, except better dressed."
She patted my knee. "Death's overrated. If I find I really can't make a career out of music, I'll cope. I'll find something to do from nine to five to pay the bills, and then I'll go home and play cello anyway until the neighbours bang on the walls. But I don't want to miss out just because I didn't try hard enough."
"So, is Nero part of that?"
"Nah. It's fun being in a band, but Nero is just a bunch of friends mucking around. We're all going in different directions musically, I don't see us lasting. But this audition... do you know what a position in a major orchestra means? It's seventy or eighty thousand a year, it's regular hours, it's tenure. Once you're in, unless you really screw up, you've got a job for life. The catch is, there aren't a lot of openings, and you have to be bloody good to get in, ahead of all the others trying for the same slot. Cello, you'd be lucky to have one opening a year. So that's why I'm stressing out about this audition."
"Is this the first time you've auditioned?"
"No, I've tried for just about anything that would let me support myself. Last one was a spot with the Brisbane Symphony in October. I went up for that but... wasn't in the right frame of mind for it. Couldn't get to sleep, then when I finally did get to sleep, I had this nightmare where the audition panel was full of my bitchy classmates from the Conservatorium. So I went in tired and jittery... well, you can imagine the rest."
"Poor thing. I hate job interviews even without that kind of thing."
"Didn't help that Luke wasn't exactly being supportive, either. So, yeah, I really don't need to screw up again. None of their other cellists are near retirement age, so if I miss this one... you know, this is depressing. Can we get back to the bit where you were going to tear my clothes off?"
"I love you. I really do. Do you know you make my heart beat faster? Every time my phone beeps, I hope it's you."
"Oh, sweetie." Something in her voice made me ache. "You're going to melt me if you're not careful. A little puddle of melodramatic cellist all over the seat."
"Don't worry, I brought a towel. Hey, can you check the GPS? I think we're near our turnoff."
She peered at it. "Yeah, there's a left in about two k's, then five more and we're there."
We were doing fine until the puddle. Between two kills, the road dipped and water had pooled at the bottom. Although it didn't look more than a few inches deep, I didn't want to take chances, so I slowed down a little and angled the car so I could go straight through without steering.
There was a mighty sploosh of water, and then the wheels regained their grip on the road... and about ten seconds later the engine died. No fuss, no grinding or smoke, she just ran out of steam so quickly that I barely had time to turn on the hazard lights before we'd coasted to a halt.
I tried turning the key. I could hear the motor turning over, but it refused to catch. Neither of us fancied being wiped out by somebody speeding in the wet, so we got out into the rain and pushed the car safely onto the shoulder.
"So, Yvonne, how much do you know about cars?"
"Not as much as I ought." There was no point in popping the hood when neither of us knew what to look for, and we were already getting damp, so we got back in and thought for a while. There was a manual in the glovebox but it didn't have anything helpful. I'd have gone online to look for advice, but out here between the hills we didn't even have phone reception, let alone internet. "I'm guessing water got into something."
"Let's give it a bit and maybe it'll dry out."
We sat in the car for five minutes, keeping an eye on the road in case anybody was coming, and then I tried the engine again: still no luck.
"Give it another five minutes?" I suggested.
"Might switch off the electrics meanwhile. Don't want to run down the battery." I pulled the key, and switched off the hazard lights, and we were alone in the dark. Not completely dark — once my eyes adjusted I could see the moon showing dimly through thick cloud — but darker than it ever gets in the city.
"Well," I offered, "I know a few good ghost stories."
"Don't you dare." She leant over and gave me a pinch on the nipple that made me yelp.
"If you're going to be like that..." I thrust the palm of my hand against her breastbone and pushed her back down into her seat. "Maybe I won't wait until we get there... oh, honey, you're shivering!"
"I'm sorry. Got a bit wet when we were pushing the car. Should've put my coat on."
As I ran my hands over her, I could feel it. She was wearing a jumper, but it was thin and had soaked up quite a bit of water in the short time that we'd been outside, and without the heater the air inside was already getting cold and clammy.
"Better get you somewhere warm." I tried the engine one more time, muttering imprecations to the gods of tech support, but no luck. "I think we're only about two k's from the B&B. I can walk it, I'm sure they'll have a car. And I think the rain's easing off."
"I'll come with you, then."
"Sure? You can stay here and keep warm if you want."
"I'm cold anyway, I'd feel c-creepy sitting here on my own. Maybe walking will warm me up."
I looked sharply at her. I'd heard the shiver in her voice, but I didn't argue. Truth be told, I didn't much fancy the idea of either of us being alone if another driver came along. So we locked up the car and walked.
We'd put on our raincoats, but we hadn't planned on a long walk in pouring rain, and they weren't adequate for the job. Mine didn't quite reach my knees, leaving much of my legs unprotected, and now and then a gust would blow rain into my face to creep in around my neck. Phoebe's wasn't much better, and I started to suspect she was colder than she was letting on. She stumbled a couple of times, until I took her by the elbow, and we made the last stretch of our walk hand in hand.
Although it was no more than half an hour since we'd left the car, I was very glad to see the light of the B&B up ahead. According to the website 'Chambers' was an old two-story brick and timber building that had once been a farmhouse, but in the dark all I could make out was the shape of it looming against the grey-black sky, and the glow from the windows.