Sara was breathing hard, partly from exertion but also with annoyance. It was not that the telephone was interrupting anything except that first, quiet moment when all movement stopped. It was more that she very much wanted it not to be her agent, Robin, whom she was not yet ready to forgive, and was annoyed in advance in case it was. Her legs were shaking as she reached for the telephone. She was still sweating. As she picked up the receiver, the warm smooth plastic slipped through her wet hand, banged on the floor and bounced on the end of its coiled flex, spinning and clunking against the chest of drawers. Whoever was on the other and would probably think she had just hurled the telephone against the wall, so there was no chance of sounding poised and reasonable now. But it was not her agent, it was James. Only a little less annoyed, Sara tried to sound nonchalant which, being breathless, she found difficult.
'Sara Selkirk. Oh, it's you. What was what? Oh, nothing. I just dropped the phone.' She eased her shoes off without undoing the laces. 'I'm a bit out of breath, that's all. Just been out running.' She wiped her free hand damply down her chest.
'So, how are you getting on? Are you all right?' asked James. With the receiver crooked under her chin Sara leaned over and peeled away her stained socks. She sank onto the floor and sat with her legs straight out in front of her.
'Oh, I'm fine - a bit bloodstained.' She sighed, turning her feet to inspect the damage. 'But I'd do it again tomorrow. I enjoyed it.'
James was incredulous. 'Come off it, honeybun. You couldn't actually enjoy it, unless you were sick or something. Are you some sort of pervert, or what?'
'Oh, shut up. It's a wonderful feeling. I'll convert you one day. Look, when are we rehearsing? Not that I feel particularly keen.'
'This afternoon, at four. They're closing the Pump Room early so we can get in. We'll have to put up with them shifting tables and stuff, but it should be okay,' he said. 'Look, are you sure you're all right? You don't sound all right.'
'Yes, yes, I'm fine,' Sara said, flexing her feet. 'I suppose.' Her heart was still hammering but a little more slowly now. 'Four o'clock's fine, I suppose. If we must.' She was suddenly aware of a hurt silence at the other end of the telephone and kicked herself for forgetting. 'Oh, look--' she began.
'Well, yes, I am afraid we must. But you might remember that I'd rather be somewhere else as well. At St Michael's on Lansdown Hill, to be precise. Only I did think, once I'd said we'd do it, that we were committed, and I do think it's quite important for you to do it,' James said. 'And I don't mind putting you before Graham, but--'
'James, I'm sorry, really I am,' Sara pleaded. 'I'd forgotten about Graham's service. I know you wanted to be there. I am glad we're playing at the Pump Room. I'm really sorry.'
'Oh, no need,' James said wearily, and sighed. 'Look, I'm sorry. It's not your fault, it's just the clash of dates that's so fucking annoying. Anyway, Austin understands. And he couldn't get St Michael's on any other day.' He sighed again. 'It'll be a good memorial service, with or without me. It's just so sad.'
'Perhaps you could send flowers.'
'Yeah, perhaps. Anyway, go and prick your blisters, or whatever turns you on. I'll see you this afternoon.'
It crossed Sara's mind as she sat down to practise later that morning that James really was putting himself out for her. Only a matter of days after he had persuaded her into this little performance, his friend Graham Xavier had died, and his memorial service arranged for seven p.m. on Friday, 13 June. Austin, worn down by months of caring for his partner, of watching him waste away, blind, emaciated but angry to the last, had explained patiently that the service had to be then, partly to allow their many London friends to get down to Bath, but also because it was one of the few times that the church happened to be available. Sara recalled James's dismay. She had invited him to cancel their Pump Room date and play at Graham's service instead. But James had said sadly, better do something for the living, Graham would approve of that. She thought guiltily that she had better summon something rather fine, like proper gratitude to James, up from the cellar where her good manners lurked more or less unvisited these days.
As she played, her mind wandered away from Graham and back, as it frequently did, to herself. After all, Graham had been James's friend, and that was important, of course, but a friend, one of many. So Graham's death was a loss, but not sudden, not personal like the loss she had suffered. Was suffering, she thought indulgently. Suffering, misunderstood and very, very peeved. She had begun to notice that the people who had been around her at the time, the few people who had an inkling of the reasons behind her abrupt withdrawal from her career, were looking to her now for some progress in what they all regarded as a temporary abandonment of purpose. They stopped a little way short of asking outright: Do you think you might be getting over it yet? but that was what they wanted to know. Especially Robin, whose enquiries were becoming increasingly blunt: Look, just when do you think you might be able to think about it, Sara? Well, not now, not yet and certainly not if you ask. James avoided any clumsy direct questioning, but although he saw her every few days even he was now beginning to ask: How are you getting on? not just How are you? Probably not even his patience was inexhaustible. She would have to show James that she was grateful. But Robin could rot.
Because it would be a mistake to let anyone make too much of her first public performance in over a year. First thing this morning she had lost her temper on the phone with Robin after he had been deaf to the fact that the 'performance' was going to be less than half an hour's playing at a charity event. 'Well, don't be thrilled, Robin. Don't go on about it,' she had snapped. 'James bullied me into it. No, it doesn't mean I'm able to take any proper engagements. I'm not ready. I don't even want to do this one.' He had turned on her and declared that if that was truly the case, then speaking not as her friend but as her agent she should not be playing at all. If she bottled out again it would be disastrous. She, while silently agreeing with him, had then childishly forbidden him to come. 'I wasn't necessarily planning to,' he had retorted. 'I've got lots to do in London. Other people to look after, you know, people who actually like performing. People with careers.' She remembered saying, 'Is that so? Well, I have one brief suggestion for you, Robin. And it ends in "off".' And then she had, unforgivably, slammed down the receiver and stomped off on a three-mile run which had not cooled her temper.
She came to the end of her scales and realised, with the air vibrating round her in an angry thrum, that she had been bowing as if she were sawing Robin's head off. She stood up, placed her cello on its side and wandered over to the French window, but instead of stepping out to the garden she turned back to face the room. She liked the bare paleness of the bleached floor and white muslin, hung from black poles, next to Matteo's ebony Bosendorfer concert grand and the small dark chair and music stand that she used, but it had been more Matteo's room than hers. For the first few months she had avoided coming in here, and later, as an excuse to go in, she had begun to see to it that there were always fresh flowers from the garden in the room. One day, finding an appalling slug slinking across the piano, she had felt her floral offering mundanely infested, exposed as exactly the sort of mawkish shrine-making that Matteo would have hated. Now she forced herself to use the room sometimes and to keep it bare. Only very occasionally now, when on the threshold and raising her hand to the door, would she suddenly miss the sounds of occupancy, the notes of the piano or Matteo's voice within, and the thought would come to her like the involuntary flutter of a muscle that he must have just wandered out to the garden for a moment. She conceded, looking round now, that none of it was Robin's fault. I should ring him, she thought, because it is not his fault and anyway he is right. She did not want to play again in front of an audience yet, but worse - and what neither Robin nor James realised - was that she was approaching the concert not with the fear that she might not cope but with a flat boredom that was infinitely more terrifying in its implications than the most crippling nerves.
James's theory was that only when she started playing again would the old feeling come back, and that she would overcome what he called the Block. 'One sniff of the old greasepaint, you'll see, that's all it'll take,' he had said optimistically and, as it was turning out, wrongly. She did not want to let him down so she would play the concert, but it would be with the same perfunctory deadness of heart that had first overcome her in Paris. She would have another forage in the manners cellar in the hope of unearthing sufficient humility to ring Robin. And then she rather hoped that she would be left alone.
In a mood of atonement she worked for the whole of the morning. It did not strike her until later that she had practised mechanically for over four hours with such technical precision that she could barely remember which pieces she had been playing.
* * *
Cecily Smith was idly considering liposuction when the bell rang. With a sigh she jammed her shoes back on, shoved her Cosmopolitan back into her desk drawer and trundled across the corridor to Derek's office, where she set up his coffee-maker almost as carefully as he would have done himself. As it went 'spleuch spleuch' she washed up his cup and saucer and straightened things on the desk, running her hand lightly over his bulging brown leather Filofax. Occasionally she tugged down her short black skirt which she had bought as the consequence of an article entitled 'The New Mini - You're Not Too Old To Wear It!' But she was. And Derek was too unfit to bound up the stairs, so when he swept into the room he was hot and panting as well as very large. Cecily, who knew the sound of his arrival at the top of the staircase, fluffed her hair, pulled in her stomach and turned from the desk just in time to bestow upon him the picture of herself, the consummate headmaster's secretary, with a smile which she knew conveyed a certain readiness. Derek dumped a pile of manila folders on his desk, poured out his coffee and gulped at it twice, eyeing her dangerously. Putting down his cup, he led her by the wrist to the corner furthest from the windows and (considerately, she thought) wiped his hand across his lips before plunging his tongue into her mouth. Strange how coffee, so clean and delicious, is instantly transformed on a person's breath into a kind of bitter compost. Somehow she hardly ever minded, and seldom allowed herself to reflect that Derek's preferred order of stimulants these days was caffeine first, her second. Without ceremony his hands hoiked up the back of her skirt, sank under her tights and began energetically kneading her backside.
All was quiet around them, save for the far-off playground yammer. The others, to whom Derek referred as 'my admin team', would all be downstairs in the staff room having their coffee now, motivated by either (Cecily was not sure which) raging thirst or raging discretion. She and Derek had roughly four minutes before they could expect an interruption from a rounded-up band of bike-shed smokers or, more likely, a harassed junior teacher. Not daring to be too reckless they had learned, more or less, to wait for the sanctuary of Cecily's little house in Bath, but for now, in the corner among the box files, spider plants and back numbers of TES, they chewed hungrily at each other's necks with the promise of a proper meal later.
Over his shoulder Cecily looked through the windows down across the tarmac to the hall, the 'PE Complex' in Derek-speak, a ghastly seventies addition to a more subtly disastrous sixties building. Dispirited seagulls tottered on the asphalt roof. Below, dispirited clusters of children roamed the wire at the playground's edge. Beyond, a line of dispirited and widely spaced saplings drooped across implausibly undulating banks of municipal grass, where two dispirited dogs sniffed and trailed each other tediously. Behind rose the estate of medium-rise blocks on whose walls even the graffiti had assumed a weary air. She could not look at any of it for long without feeling her heart sag like the gusset in an old pair of tights. It was not hopelessly awful; of course there were many places worse, but it just seemed that no one who had ever had a say in how the place was put together had bothered to consider that human beings might need to enjoy what they saw around them. There needed to be things for the eye to rest on with pleasure, things that were perhaps, strictly speaking, unnecessary. Cecily thought of her new urn. She had just bought it from an overpriced and precious reclamation outfit in Walcot Street and, knowing she had paid more than she could afford for it, consequently loved it too much. She had planted it up with an expensive collection of trailing plants which, if they did as the packaging claimed, were going to provide 'a cascade of colour all summer long'. The urn now stood in her otherwise uncultivated front garden, which was roughly the size of a door, but it looked well, in keeping with the rest of the terrace whose six houses all had Victorian ornamental bricks above the front sash windows and twiddly bits round the doorways.
Excerpted from Funeral Music by Morag Joss. Copyright © 2005 by Morag Joss. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.